Indian Burning-The False Solution to Large Blazes
Prescribed fire and cultural burning by Native Americans is often promoted as a means of reducing large blazes across the West. There are many reasons to question such assumptions. Photo George Wuerthner
Here are seven articles (attached below) from today’s news cycle. They promote the idea that our forests need to be “gardened” by human ignitions to be healthy and preclude large blazes. The solution to large fires is to facilitate Indian cultural burning.
Indian burning, the articles suggest, once kept ecosystems healthy and precluded large blazes. Many journalists as well as some conservation groups and agencies have latched to cultural burning by Native Americans as the panacea for fire reduction. Another problem is the underlying assumption that large blazes are somehow “destructive” or a “disaster” for plant communities and that Indian burning could reduce or halt large blazes.
The snag forests that result from high severity have some of the highest biodiversity of any ecosystems in the West. Photo George Wuerthner
The story goes like this. Prior to the advent of the white man, it is suggested that Indians regularly set fires every few years to attract wildlife to feed on new growth, promote specific plants like huckleberry or to clear vegetation for crops. These fires, it is asserted, precluded the build of fuels. These continuous burning kept forests “healthy” and eliminated the fuel that carries large wildfires.
Then with the advent of European culture, disease, and removal to reservations, cultural burning was essentially halted and fuels built up contributing to the large blazes we are experiencing today.
The problem with this solution is it’s a “just-so-story” more fairy tale than reality. The primary source of large wildfires today is not too much fuel but climate, especially global warming. If the climate were to suddenly turn cold and moist, I guarantee you that there would be few large blazes.
INDIAN BURNING AFFECT LIMITED AREAS
First, research on paleo fires that occurred prior to European incursions does not show extensive burning above what would be expected naturally. The only evidence additive fire from humans is in the immediate vicinity of villages and major travel corridors. Fire occurrence was correlated primarily with climate as the determining factor for fire frequency and size. Other studies came to similar conclusions. There was plenty of fire, but it was not dependent on human ignitions.
Cultural burning advocates often cite the increase of fires in the immediate area around a village as evidence of human influence on the landscape, but these researchers are usually extrapolating beyond the village to suggest fire was prevalent everywhere without the evidence to back up such assertions.
Numerous studies have looked at Indian burning and its influence on fire regimes. Most work done by fire ecologists who focus on large landscape fires do not find any additive influence from Indigenous burning. Rather climate/weather appears to control periods of significant wildfire activity (Baker W.L. 2002).
In other words, they find evidence for more frequent fires during major droughts and in the immediate area of villages, along major travel corridors, trading centers, and other high use areas; but across the landscape as a whole, they do not find evidence that human ignitions were additive to total landscape acreage charred by wildfire.
The best way, in my view, to document whether human ignitions were an important influence for landscape-scale fires is to use charcoal or pollen studies. But other techniques such as air photos, General Land Office (GLO) surveys, and even historic accounts of early Euro-Americans can also provide insights.
Charcoal studies are a proxy for wildfires that rely on an examination of core drillings in lakes and ponds to extract sediments where charcoal from major wildfires are recorded. By examining such cores, researchers can document the larger wildfires in a landscape going back thousands of years.
Pollen from the same core samples also documents the major vegetation present in surrounding lands.
The Yosemite Valley was the home of the Miwok Indians where fire frequency was correlated with climate. Photo George Wuerthner
For instance, Vachula et al. (2019) did a study of what is now Yosemite National Park where, historically, large Indigenous communities resided. Their research found a direct correlation between climate and the amount of burning on the landscape.
“We analyzed charcoal preserved in lake sediments from Yosemite National Park and spanning the last 1400 years to reconstruct local and regional area burned. Warm and dry climates promoted burning at both local and regional scales…
The regional area burned peaked during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and declined during the last millennium, as the climate became cooler and wetter and Native American burning declined.
Our record indicates that (1) climate changes influenced burning at all spatial scales, (2) Native American influences appear to have been limited to local scales, but (3) high Miwok populations resulted in fire even during periods of climate conditions unfavorable to fires. However, at the regional scale (< 150 km from the lake), fire was generally controlled by the top-down influence of climate.” (Vachula et al. 2019).
The Oregon Coast Range had some of the highest density population of Native Americans due to the presence of salmon and other marine resources. Yet, the influence of Native burning was minimal due to the moist cool climate of Oregon’s Coast Range that reduced fire frequency. The presence of Sitka spruce, a species intolerant of fire, suggests long fire-free periods. Photo George Wuerthner
Another study found that the mean fire interval in Oregon’s Coast Range was 230 years and the presence of fire-sensitive species like Sitka spruce indicates a lack of frequent fire (Knox and Whitlock 2002).
Oregon’s Willamette Valley had significant Indian populations, but evidence suggests that the influence of cultural burning on fuels and even fire frequency was limited to areas around village sites. Photo George Wuerthner
Regarding Indigenous ignitions in the Willamette Valley, Whitlock notes: “The idea that Native Americans burned from one end of the valley to the other is not supported by our data … Most fires seem to have been fairly localized, and broad changes in fire activity seem to track large-scale variations in climate” (Fire Science 2010).
In a charcoal study of Washington’s Battle Ground Lake, Megan Walsh (Walsh et al. 2008) concluded that fire frequency was highest during the middle Holocene when oak savanna and prairie were widespread near Battle Ground Lake. She suggests: “The vegetation and fire conditions were most likely the result of warmer and drier conditions compared with the present, not from human use of fire” (Fire Science 2010).
To give another example, one can show that Indian burning was frequent in the Yosemite Valley where native people resided much of the year, but no evidence for wide-spread human burning in most of what is now Yosemite Park or the Sierra Nevada Mountains as a whole (Vale 1998).
Hoffman et al. (2016) looked at Indian burning influence in coastal British Columbia and concluded that climate was the driving force in fire occurrence: “At the decadal scale, fires were more likely to occur after positive El Niño-Southern Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation phases and exhibited 30-year periods of synchrony with the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation. Fire frequency was significantly inversely correlated with the distance from former Indigenous habitation sites.”
Large blazes always occurred in the Siskiyou Mountains largely the result of climate and weather not Native American burning. Middle Fork of the Applegate River, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner
Colombaroil and Gavin (2002) documented that large fires always occurred in the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California and southern Oregon, primarily due to climate/weather, even during the pre-European period. “Fire is a primary mode of natural disturbance in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Increased fuel loads following fire suppression and the occurrence of several large and severe fires have led to the perception that in many areas there is a greatly increased risk of high-severity fire compared with presettlement forests. To reconstruct the variability of the fire regime in the Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon, we analyzed a 10-m, 2,000-y sediment core for charcoal, pollen, and sedimentological data. The record reveals a highly episodic pattern of fire in which 77% of the 68 charcoal peaks were before Euro-American settlement…”
Old forests shaped by climate change and natural processes were the primary influence on New England Forests. Photo George Wuerthner
These findings are not limited to the West. David Foster who has studied historic land use in New England came to a similar conclusion: “Our study contradicts the theory that people had significant ecological impacts in southern New England before European arrival. Instead, it reveals that old forests, shaped by climate change and natural processes, prevailed across the region for thousands of years.”
EVOLUTIONARY EVIDENCE AGAINST THE NOTION OF WIDESPREAD INFLUENCE OF INDIAN BURNING
Beyond the archeological evidence that Indian burning seldom had a significant impact on fuels across the landscape, we also have evolutionary evidence. For example, many low elevation ecosystem types like chaparral and sagebrush do not tolerate frequent burning. For instance, most sagebrush species in the West have a fire rotation of 70-400 years.
Sagebrush is a low elevation plant community that is intolerant of fire, often having a fire rotation of hundreds of years. If Indian burning was as frequent (every few years) and as prevalent as promoters suggest, we would not have much sagebrush across the West. Photo George Wuerthner
Obviously, if Indians were burning extensive areas of this landscape every few years, we would not have much sagebrush surviving. The fact that we have not only extensive sagebrush habitat, but also many sagebrush dependent species like sage grouse, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, pygmy rabbit, pronghorn, mule deer, and other wildlife that depend on sagebrush for their survival.
The majority of all plant types in the West did not burn at frequent intervals. This suggests that Indian burning did little to influence fuel loads or fire frequency. Western larch on the Lolo National Forest, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner
Another piece of evidence is that sagebrush is not the only plant communities in the West that has long fire rotations (i.e. natural fire-free periods). Among the plant communities that go many decades to hundreds of years between major wildfires are chaparral, lodgepole pine, western white pine, western larch, almost all fir species, all spruce species, aspen, juniper, high elevation pines like bristlecone pine and whitebark pine. In fact, the list of major tree and shrub communities where frequent fire is largely absent is far greater than the few tree species like ponderosa pine that appear adapted to frequent fires.
Again, if Indian burning were so widespread and frequent as asserted, few of these plant communities would have survived.
So the idea that frequent Indian cultural burning significantly reduce fuels across most of the West is largely hyperbole. I suggest the reason we are hearing so much about it is the desire to promote Indians as “wise stewards” of the land as if they alone, know some secret about forest and fires that has eluded other cultures.
However, burning to attract wildlife or clear land is nothing new. Across the globe, there is evidence that people have been setting fires to attract wildlife or clear land for thousands of years. There is even evidence from northern Europe of human set fires from 15,000 years ago to attract game.
PRESCRIBED OR CULTURAL BURNING DOESN’T PRECLUDE LARGE FIRES
One of the big mistakes of cultural burning advocates is a failure to understand fire ecology. Large blazes occur under unusual weather conditions which include drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds. Under extreme fire weather conditions, wildfires will burn across any area with fuel, and if there is none, simply jump over the non-fuel area.
The Eagle Creek burn that was ignited in this creek bottom, charred much of the Columbia Gorge. It jumped the entire Columbia River to ignite fires on the Washington side of the river. Photo George Wuerthner
For example, the Eagle Creek Fire, Oregon that charred the Columbia River Gorge, burning under extreme fire weather with high winds, jumped across the mile and a half wide Columbia River to ignite flames on the Washington side of the river. There was absolutely no fuel in the river, but that did not stop the fire spread. Does anyone seriously believe burning some grass and needles here and there will disrupt the fire spread under extreme fire conditions?
Map showing the perimeter of the Bootleg Fire that charred more than 400,000 acres in Oregon. All of the colored areas in the map with the exception of the large patch of green indicating the Gearhart Wilderness had undergone some kind of “fuel reduction” including logging, thinning, cattle grazing and prescribed burning. None of these “solutions” slowed or halted the weather-driven blaze. Map by Byant Baker.
We also have plenty of evidence of the failure for all fuel reductions to halt large blazes, including logging/thinning, prescribed burning, and livestock grazing. The Dixie Fire that charred almost a million acres of northern California, and the Bootleg Fire that raced across 400,000 acres in southern Oregon had undergone massive fuel reductions, including prescribed fire. One estimate is that 75% of the Bootleg Fire had previously experienced one or more types of fuel reductions.
The Dixie Fire crossed recent clearcuts (which are the ultimate “fuel reduction”) to burn thinned and other logged forest stands. Photo George Wuerthner
A further problem with this solution is the fact that there have always been large fires, even with Indian cultural burning. For instance, in 1710 it is estimated that up to 10 million acres burned in what is now the state of Washington in a single summer. Keep in mind that if 10 million acres burned across the entire country in a summer today, that is considered a record fire year.
There is also evidence for massive wildfires on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada as well as elsewhere in the West during the Medieval Warm Spell which occurred between 800-1300 Ad. Again, this is before there was any fire suppression or limits on Indian cultural burning.
This site on the Deschutes National Forest experienced a prescribed burn two years previously. The density of regrowth now has more fine fuel than prior to treatment. Burning often stimulates greater plant growth resulting in more fuel to carry fires. Photo George Wuerthner
The idea that more prescribed burning would preclude large fires is that vegetation grows back quickly. So, unless you continuously treat the area with periodic burning—forever-you won’t influence fire spread.
Climate/weather drives large fires and fuel reductions have limited influence. There is essentially nothing different about Indian cultural burning and prescribed fire. And it doesn’t matter whether the drip torch is held by an Indian or an Italian, Japanese, someone from India, or a Buddhist or whether they sing a song or say a prayer before they lite the flame. In the end, there is a reduction in fuel, but not enough to matter under extreme fire conditions.
Why is this important? The nuance in this argument is that most of all blazes are burning under less than extreme fire weather conditions. Some estimates suggest that 99% of all blazes occur under less extreme fire weather conditions. Under low to moderate fire weather, most fires burn a few acres or less, and most self-extinguish. And if we choose, they are also easy to suppress.
Paradise, California where the Camp Fire consumed 19,000 structures. The area around Paradise had previously had numerous fuel reductions including clearcuts, hazardous fuel removal, prescribed burning, and two previous fires and nothing halted the wind-driven Camp Fire. Photo George Wuerthner
But the fires that everyone is concerned about—the big ones that char tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of acres only occur during extreme fire weather conditions. And the evidence suggests under such fire weather, fuel is less important than the weather conditions that are driving the fire.
A fundamental problem with the entire debate is that the snag forests that result from high severity fires create some of the highest biodiversity in the West. After such fires, you get more bees, more flowers, more bats, more birds, more small mammals, and even more fish.
Beyond the fact that cultural burning is not going to make much difference in the occurrence of large fires, there is also a philosophical implication expressed by many of these articles and champions of Indian burning that forests “need” human gardening to be “healthy”.
I don’t think more prescribed burning is going to have any impact on large fires. Anyone who has studied paleoclimate and fire (which I have) will agree there were always large blazes even long before there were humans in North America.
I am not aware of any major ecosystem that “needs” human intervention to survive. In almost all ecosystems where the fire had/has a presence there are plenty of natural ignition sources–mostly lightning, and we don’t need “cultural” ignitions any more than we need “thinning”, logging or any other fuel reductions to fix our forests. Our forests are doing just fine if we left them alone.
Wildfire has been influencing North American plant communities for millions of years. There are fire-scarred petrified redwood trees that were entombed 55 million years ago by volcanic eruptions in Yellowstone National Park, this was long before there were any humans to ignite fires.
Ironically the Forest Service, TNC, the timber industry, and many advocates of Indian cultural burning appear to discount or even discourage the natural agents that create “healthy forest ecosystems such as bark beetles, wildfire, root rot, and other ecological processes.
This growing trend to attribute human intervention as the way to maintain “healthy ecosystems” and biodiversity is part of a larger threat to our planet. It is the “gardening” mentality exemplified by Emma Maris’s book Rambunctious Garden well as many others who seek to put humans at the center of the universe.
It is all part of the larger Anthropocene movement promoted by the left and the right that suggests our forests “need” humans–at least certain racial groups–to maintain them as if they were in a deplorable condition before there were any people here to “manage” them. The only difference is that some on the left think Indians need to manage them, while on the right, it is the timber industry that is the manager of choice.
It is the human-centered perspective that is the root of our environmental crisis–and unfortunately, it is being promoted by the media with the help of many environmental organizations who are parroting the same theme.
Promoting more prescribed burning, whether by Native Americans or anybody else, within a hundred feet or so of housing tracts might provide a slight buffer against weather-driven blazes. However, the assertion that our natural landscapes need human manipulation to be healthy or functional is a gross myth and yet another example of human arrogance.
EXAMPLES OF RECENT ARTICLES PROMOTING INDIAN CULTURAL BURNING
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
7 Responses to Indian Burning-The False Solution to Large Blazes
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This is the best article yet describing the futility of trying to reduce fire danger by thinning the forests.
A burned forest was the loss of a home for Smokey the bear and all his furry forest friends says USFS. On the other hand, a snag forest is lost profit from broad feet lumber says a pioneer. Both ideologies impose human-centered values as means to dominate. But to native peoples a forest represented neither ideals because to manage a forest meant to dominate it for purpose of profit or protect the animals’ home. I can’t speak for the philosophy of native peoples because I’ve never read historical documents supporting their purpose for burning. Nevertheless, forests need to burn regardless of how forests are defined.
The Fire-Industrial Complex won’t like this information.
George writes some excellent pieces, but I think they need wider distribution. We see in the sources mentioned here how the Indian burning fairy tale has been repeated endlessly, but where is the opposing view to be found. Not nearly enough places.
Also, I wonder how anyone expects modern Indians to still have information that those from generations ago had. About as common as we would know common practices from our great great grandfathers. Times have changed and so have the people, all of them.
I don’t agree with everything that George has said about Native Americans but he is right about the newest form of propaganda to sell the ‘management’ of wooded lands etc..
Capitalistic self interest is the main motivation. Every so often business organizations and now environmental groups change their propaganda scheme to keep the public off balance and keep the cash flowing.
I noticed that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Bachman’s warbler have formally joined the ranks of the passenger pigeon in the ghost realm of extinction. They did not get there from “forest fires”. They got there from chain saws, bulldozers and human greed.
Thanks for this interesting analysis of Indian burning, which is the latest fad in wildfire hazard mitigation. None of these presumed panaceas address the underlying cause of increased frequency and intensity of wildfire that is caused by climate change, as you say. We turn to these fantasies of mitigation because we are unwilling and/or unable to address the underlying cause. The methods we using contribute to climate change.
The National Academy of Sciences has published a new study of the causes of wildfires in the western US. The study confirms that the climate change is the primary driver of wildfires in the west. “Previous studies have identified a recent increase in wildfire activity in the western United States (WUS). However, the extent to which this trend is due to weather pattern changes dominated by natural variability versus anthropogenic warming has been unclear…Our results suggest that the WUS appears to have passed a critical threshold and that the dominant control on the fire weather variation in the WUS has changed from natural climate variability to anthropogenically forced warming. While natural climate variability can still significantly modulate the interannual to decadal variations of fire weather risk, the trend toward increasing risk will likely continue over the WUS. This change in risk requires urgent and effective societal adaptation and mitigation responses.”
Given that climate change is the primary cause of increased wildfires, does it still make sense to keep destroying trees to reduce wildfire risk? Deforestation contributes to climate change. Prescribed burns also contribute to carbon release and air pollution. If climate change is the underlying cause of wildfires, aren’t we shooting ourselves in the foot by destroying trees and burning vegetation?
More broadly, I think fuels, and how they are treated, just don’t matter anymore in the summertime and early autumn conditions of the many great fires that burn. They will burn where they choose, and are unstoppable until winter (excuse my anthropomorphizing).
Humans can still make the burns worse, however, by what they do afterwards. And they probably will with salvage logging.