Media Distortion of SW Indigenous Fire Management

Ponderosa pine in New Mexico Blue Range Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 
A  new paper, Indigenous fire management and cross-scale fire climate relationships in the Southwest United States from 1500 to 1900 CE,  was recently published. Based on solid scientific research, it makes the important point that indigenous fire management was local rather than landscape or forest scale in nature.”
Media response has characterized Indigenous burning as somehow a major feature of the landscape and implies if Indians hadn’t been suppressed or eliminated, we would not have large landscape blazes. A few representative media articles are below.
One issue that most media and even more than a few fire ecologists fail to grasp is that today’s climate is significantly warmer and drier than in any recent past. One cannot expect to replicate the “historic fire condition” under the present climate.

During the Medieval Warm Spell and extensive drought conditions forced Indian cliff dwelling settlements throughout the Southwest to be abandoned. Photo George Wuerthner 

Fire scar studies seldom go back more than four hundred years, during which time, there is no analog to the climate that is now driving wildfires. The closest analogy to current climate warming is the Medieval Warm Spell (800-1300 AD).  During this period, there were significant climate-driven large landscape wildfires.
Though prescribed or cultural burning may have strategic value, it is not going to be a solution to climate-driven fires, which are the result of human-induced climate warming. Beyond the fact that Indian burning never did mitigate climate-driven landscape-scale fires as detailed in the paper, there are huge limitations on using prescribed fire.
Prescribed and Indigenous cultural burning has a stategic role to play in fire management, but there are severe limits on its implemention and it is not a panaca that will preclude large climate-driven wildfires. Photo George Wuerthner 
Even if Indian burning were a major historical influence on wildfires across the landscape, implementing more human-ignition is problematic. Concerns about smoke, funding and human resources to do significant burning, the liability issue if a prescribed burn expands beyond the project boundaries, the intermix of homes in the Wildland Urban Interface, and the limited window of “safe” burning conditions, all of which reduces the effectiveness of this as a fire reduction strategy.
As one of the news media reports says: “Devastating megafires are becoming more common, in part, because the planet is warming. But a new study led by SMU suggests bringing “good fire” back to the U.S. and other wildfire fire-prone areas, as Native Americans once did, could potentially blunt the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires.”
However, if you read the study, it doesn’t say this. More on what the study said is below.
In this study, there are a number of problematic issues that readers should be aware of.
One is that they list Navajo livestock grazing as part of the “Indigenous fire management,” a detail that does not come across in the numerous media articles. Of course, if overgrazing by livestock is part of the traditional ecological knowledge of the tribe, they have no insights that later ranchers also practiced to the detriment of the landscape.
Another problem is that they specifically focused research on areas of higher Indian population centers and landscape use. This could bias the study in numerous ways, again increasing the influence of native burning in specific areas which may have been localized rather than across the landscape. The sites they reviewed were small 5-100 ha.
The research depended on fire scar studies which are problematic for several reasons.
The media also assume that high-severity fires are “bad” and must be avoided, and they continuously assume that Indigenous burning contributed to “healthy” forests.  The media has adopted the narrative that if we only initiated widespread Indian cultural burning or prescribed fires, somehow high severity blazes would be precluded.

Ponderosa pine in Woodland Park, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico. Ponderosa pine forests have existed for millions of years before any humans arrived in North America to “manage’ them.  Photo George Wuerthner 


One has to ask how did these forests (like ponderosa pine which has existed for 55 million years) survive all those millions of years without human intervention? If forest health is dependent on human manipulation, this is problematic since human presence in NA is relatively recent, most likely less than 15,000 years.
Another way this is mischaracterized is many people come to believe that all ecosystem types were influenced by frequent, low severity wildfire. This is simply not the case.
Most ecosystems and plant communities across the West naturally experienced long fire rotations, often of many decades to hundreds of years between blazes. This includes lodgepole pine, most fir and spruce species, aspen, sagebrush, juniper-pinyon, chaparral, and many other plant types.  So even if Indigenous burning had been a significant influence on some forest types, it was not the driving force operating on fire regimes in the majority of the western landscape.
Finally, even in their results, they acknowledge that climate was the major influence on fire in the region–though you would not get this impression from all the media summaries. Below are key quotes from the paper that contradict or at the least soften the conclusions of the media that Indigenous burning is the panacea for preventing large wildfires.
“Across the entire Southwest U.S. dataset (N = 4824 trees and
N = 451 sites; table S1) and over the entire record from 1500 to
1900 CE, climate exerted strong controls on fire activity. Seasonal
climate was significantly wetter in 1 to 3 years before regional
fires (>10% trees scarred) and significantly warmer and drier
during the year of fires, corroborating previous observations
(Fig. 1, C to G) (11, 21).”
“Local sites were grouped by cultural landscape to examine variability
in site-level fire-climate patterns across the three different
landscape contexts. At these small (ca. 5 to 100 ha) local scales,
climate drivers of fire were rarely significant during periods of intensive
cultural use but were more consistently significant at most
sites during periods of light use.”
“Using cultural periods of intensive and light use to partition the
Southwest U.S. regional-scale dataset (all 4824 trees across the
region), every period demonstrated the canonical pattern of signifi
cantly wetter climate in the 1 to 3 years before fire, and significant
drought during the fire year, regardless of the intensity of use
(Fig. 4). Therefore, the influence of Indigenous burning on fire
climate relationships is undetectable at this scale”
And below is a key phrase from the study acknowleding that human use and thus influence was not across the entire landscape because, just like now, people are drawn to certain areas to exploit resources, and large areas are seldom visited. The idea that Indians “managed” the North America landscape with fire is a gross simplification. Yet this is often used by anti park and anti wilderness advocates to suggest there is no such place of “self-willed” land because Indians were setting fires everywhere.The results of human influence were variable depending on the timing and locations of the most intensive Indigenous fire management.
“human influences results from variability in the timing and locations
of the most intensive Indigenous fire management. Land
use was spatially heterogeneous because the resources that people
used and managed were not evenly distributed, generating considerable
spatial variability in human impacts on ignitions and fuels.”
Most studies purporting that Indian fire was a significant factor on the land extrapolate from localized studies and assume this fire regime was applied broadly across the land.”
“at a given cultural landscape, the number of local sites with muted climate drivers was always lower as the geographic scale broadened”
“At the landscape scale, drought remained a potent driver of fire
activity even during intensive use, suggesting that even in heteroge
neous fuelscapes created by Indigenous patch burning, climate
could overcome limitations in fuel continuity and promote spread
“At the regional scale, the canonical climate pattern continued to be the primary driver of fire activity
through time.”
Strategic burning has a place in the mix, but it is not a panacea that will significantly alter climate-driven wildfires.
“however, these applied burning practices would need to be conducted often and
at the scales of interest or in strategic locations that have particularly
important influence on landscape-scale fire behavior.”
Ruins after the Camp Fire destroyed 19,000 structures in Paradise California. The area around Paradise had been heavily logged, had two previous wildfires and hazardous fuel reductions–none of which preempted the wind-driven blaze that overran the community. Photo George Wuerthner 
The real solution is “managed wildfire” where existing fires are guided across the landscape combined with home hardening which can provide greater safety to communities.


  1. Barrie K Gilbert Avatar
    Barrie K Gilbert

    Once again George brings thorough science to bear against unsupported notions.We benefit from facts, not suppositions.

  2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    The Dine (Navajo) did not have “traditional” livestock. The traditional Dine graze what they call their “traditional” sheep, but those sheep were brought here by the colonizers and have done great damage to the land. The Dine were hunters and raiders before Europeans got here. In fact, there was no animal agriculture (no livestock) in what is now the U.S. before the colonizers got here.

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