Tribal Burning and Fire Suppression

The media and many others, including conservation groups, suggest the cause of today’s wildfires is the result of fire suppression. They point to the cessation of Native American cultural burning as a primary reason for larger blazes. This has led to expensive and often ecologically destructive forest management policies.

A Charles M. Russell painting showing Indians igniting a fire.

I repeatedly hear how tribal burning precluded large blazes by igniting frequent fires that reduced fuels.  Here’s a recent example from a CBS news report referring to fire scars, which some fire researchers use to reconstruct fire history: “Those scars, research shows, are evidence that Indigenous Americans successfully controlled wildfires by regularly setting smaller fires to reduce the buildup of fuel.” You can find similar assertions almost daily in the media.


  1. The claim is that Indian burning precludes large fires; this claim feeds into the “fuels are the problem” narrative, which is increasingly discredited because large wildfires are driven by extreme climate weather.
  2. Historical, scientific, ecological, and evolutionary evidence challenges the Indian burning narrative.
  3. Climate and weather conditions, drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds drive large fires.
  4. These conditions have periodically existed over time, and paleo-climate-wildfire evidence demonstrates that large blazes have always occurred despite indigenous burning. However, fires are being exacerbated today by human-caused climate warming.
  5. Indigenous burning resulted primarily in localized fuel reductions but seldom affected the larger landscape.
  6. Large high-severity fires are not “destructive” but essential to many healthy forest ecosystems.
  7. Across the West, lightning strikes are sufficient and often do ignite fires.
  8. The way to protect homes is to start from the home outward, not to “treat” forests at the landscape scale.


Cultural burns were not done to promote ecosystem health or any such notions. Instead, they were conducted to attract game animals, clear pathways through vegetation to make human travel easier, clear forests for crop production, etc. These are all human self-interest concerns.

The influence of these human ignitions is debated, but much evidence suggests cultural burning was primarily localized and had limited impact on the larger landscape.

Tribal people were just as aware as people today that an ignition set when there is severe drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and wind results in uncontrollable and potentially lethal blazes. Thus, most planned human ignition fires likely charred a small area since they were set under the same moderate fire weather circumstances that occur today when any prescribed burn is authorized.

Sagebrush has no adaptation to frequent fire. The fact that sagebrush is one of the most widespread ecosystems across the West suggests that tribal burning had little landscape scale influence. 

No doubt some blazes got away just as today, but as generalization, most human ignitions did not significantly add to the natural fire rotation.

Evolutionary evidence supports the idea in that low-elevation plant communities like sagebrush did not burn frequently because they have no adaptations to fire. If Indian burning were as widespread as suggested, sagebrush would be relatively rare, not one of the most widespread plant communities in the West.

The fire rotation of sagebrush varies from species to species but is between 50 to 400 or more years. This evidence does not support the idea that frequent (5-10 years) cultural burning was common across the Western landscape. The evolution of sagebrush-adapted species like the sage grouse and sage sparrows suggests a long association with this plant community.

Higher-elevation forest communities also tend to have long fire-free intervals of hundreds of years. Photo George Wuerthner

Furthermore, cultural burning or purposeful human ignitions is not unique to North American tribal people. Burning is a tradition across the globe. Evidence shows that Paleo-Europeans burned forests 20,000 years ago to attract and kill Ice Age mammals. Human caused ignitions were historically common in Asia, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere. It is by no means unique. But in all cases, it was done to further human interests, not the ecosystem or Nature’s.


Native Americans were not the only people who regularly set fires, as often implied. Burning vegetation for practical human ends was typical among settlers, hunters, livestock owners, and miners. Indeed, towards the end of the 1800s, it was common practice for sheepmen in the West to burn forests to create more pasture. Miners sometimes set fires to expose ore-bearing rock. In the Southern Appalachians, the famous bald mountain tops were likely the result of ignition set by the local community to promote livestock use. And in the days before bulldozers and chainsaws, settlers and Indians burned forests to create pasture and farmlands.

Burning for all the above reasons, including tribal cultural burning, makes sense from a human perspective. Humans exploit the environment for our self-preservation and survival.

However, the fire suppression era also has historical roots, which should be reported more. It was not that foresters were ignorant fools who wanted to “destroy” the forest by suppressing wildfires, as commonly implied.

Instead, at the end of the 1800s, there was a strong fear that America was running out of forests. In the 1800s, wood was far more critical to everyday life than today. People used wood to heat homes, run generators, power steam engines, not to mention for newsprint, and to construct wood structures.

The movement to create national forest reserves developed because Americans believed the country faced a wood famine without such reserves.

The other issue for Americans was that wildfire was a threat to settlements. In the days when fur trappers and tribal people roamed the West, the loss of a settlement or village was not a significant issue. For most tribal people, replacing teepees, wickiups, or even dug-out shelters with locally available materials like animal hides, logs, or shrubs was relatively easy.

However, significant fires threatened numerous communities by the turn of the 1900s. It was not uncommon for entire towns to burn to the ground if a fire was ignited—though most were, like now, started in the cities themselves. Therefore, fire suppression was a rational response to the menace created by wildfire.

This fear of wildfire and tree losses coincided with the establishment of the fledging U.S. Forest Service in 1905 by Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot faced tremendous opposition from western Congressional members and their constituents to federal forest reserves (now called national forests). Pinchot’s newly created Forest Service was under attack by westerners who opposed federal control of the woodlands.


The often-repeated notion that there have been 100 years of EFFECTIVE fire suppression is not supported by the evidence.

The 1910 Big Burn raced across 3 million plus acres of Northern Idaho and Western Montana, propelled by hurricane forest winds. Seen here is Heart Lake in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 1910 Big Burn that charred more than 3-3.5 million acres across Idaho and Montana shocked the nation. Even Westerners were upset that forests could disappear, creating economic hardships for the Nation. Pinchot, ever the strategic politician, used the Big Burn to argue that his newly created Forest Service could suppress fires and prevent large blazes. He argued that the Forest Service could be the anti-fire service.

At first, the newly created forest service hired forest rangers who primarily fought fires. The rangers built trails, set up fire lookout towers, put in thousands of miles of telephone lines, and jumped on all ignitions.

The Forest Service’s effect on fire acreage was insignificant. Then, as now, fires are primarily controlled by a combination of climate-weather conditions (weather controls the ignition and spread of fires, but climatic conditions like extensive drought creates the context for significant burns). Thus, during the drought period that dominated some parts of the West between 1910 and 1930s, some of the most extensive acreage burned occurred. Indeed, in 1929, nearly 50 million acres burned across the West.

To put this into perspective, if 10 million acres burn across the West today, that is considered a “record year” for wildfire.

These drought conditions continued into the 1930s, and America experienced the Dust Bowl.

The fact that tens of millions of acres burned annually suggests the idea that we have had a hundred years of fire suppression is more exaggeration than fact. Some fires were likely extinguished, but given the vast acreage charred. It was a drop in the bucket.

In 1935, trying to improve its ability to put out fires, the Forest Service adopted its 10 AM policy. By 10 AM the day after a fire was spotted, the agency would try to put the blaze out.

The chart begins in 1926 and continues to 2016. It is clear that despite efforts to suppress wildfires, overall, large wildfires still prevailed during the earlier part of the 1900s with as much as 50 million acres burning, but declined to a low around mid-century that continued low up until the 1980s.

The Forest Service’s 10 AM policy appeared to be successful. However, the low point in wildfires coincided with cooler and moister conditions from the 1940s to the 1980s. Glaciers were expanding in the Pacific Northwest, and cool, wet conditions prevailed across the West.

This chart shows how fire acreage declined between the late 1930s to late 1980s due to the Pacific Decadial Ossillation which favored cool, moist weather.

Indeed, some researchers suggest there is a fire deficit as a result of the Little Ice Age influence on wildfire.

Under less than extreme fire weather conditions, most wildfires self-extinguish without burning a significant amount of the landscape. So, the apparent decline in wildfire acreage during these decades is likely a consequence of Natural conditions unfavorable to fire spread than any human efforts to quell blazes.

In the aftermath of the decline in federal logging beginning in the 1990s due to environmental concerns and simple economics, significant funding shortages were shrinking the Forest Service. No bureaucracy likes to wither, so a new rationalization for logging and agency funding came. The Forest Service would again be the fire agency, putting out large blazes and, by happy coincidence, finding a justification for more logging, thus keeping the timber industry happy.

The Forest Service adopted prescribed burning and logging as the primary strategy for fire control. While somewhat effective during low to moderate fire weather, under extreme weather conditions, particularly with wind, neither of these fuel reduction tactics works to limit fire acreage burned.  Indeed, evidence suggests that active forest management often enhances fire spread.


As explained, burning, thinning, and other prescriptions do not work under extreme fire conditions.

Why is this important? Because nearly all of the acreage burned annually occurs in a relatively few vast fires. These fires start under extreme fire weather and don’t go out or are even influenced by firefighting efforts until the weather changes. High winds drive embers around and through thinned stands and that had prescribed burning. Some of the largest fires in recent years, such as the Holiday Farm Fire (OR) and Dixie Fire (CA), burned through areas with substantial logging.

Helicopter view of the Angola Fire that charred South Lake Tahoe. The area in this photo had been thinned six months prior to the blaze. 

One of the problems with statements like fire suppression is responsible for large blazes is that most fires remain small whether they are suppressed or not. For example, between 1980 and 2003, 56,320 wildfires charred 9 million acres in the Rocky Mountains. Of these tens of thousands of fires, 98% of these fires (55,220) accounted for 4% of the area burned. Only 2% of all fires accounted for 96% of the acreage. Fifty fires, or 0.1% of all blazes, were responsible for half of the acres charred!

A further problem has to do with the way historical fire regimes are determined. The most popular method is to exaimine fire scars created when a blaze chars but does not kill the trees. However, there are numerous methodological problems with fire scar reconstruction. One of them is that they mainly count the number of fires but seldom provide their geographical extent. Since, as presented above, the vast majority of all blazes are minor and affect a tiny fraction of the landscape, fire scar studies are subject to essential biases that tend to reduce the fire-free intervals and provide little information on the fire’s extent.


Many advocates for thinning and prescribed burning believe these forest management activities (logging and prescribed burning) change fire behavior. Nevertheless, across the West, we find that the highest severity fires occur where active forest management has occurred, while places such as wilderness areas where logging and burning are prohibited tend to burn at lower severity.

Even if thinning and prescribed burning were effective, the scale necessary to reduce large fires on the hundreds of millions across the West susceptible to wildfire is beyond human ability. As a report published by Environment Now stated, trying to change wildfire behavior with prescribed burning (and thinning) is analogous to a watering can that pretends to be a river.

A thinning project like this on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest removes carbon stored in trees, leaves little ground cover for small mammals to hide under, and can enhance fire spread by promoting wind penetration. Photo George Wuerthner

The desire to reduce wildfires, even high severity blazes where many of trees are killed, as well as thinning projects, have significant ecological consequences. Many species of wildlife depend on the snag forests, and down wood created by large blazes.

Even though there is more and more recognition that climate change is the ultimate culprit contributing to ever-larger blazes, the Forest Service and timber industry continue to promote the fire suppression myth since they can use it to justify logging. Furthermore, the public wants immediate relief from smoke and blazes; fuel reductions promise such relief.

The promotion of the fire suppression explanation for large blazes obviously favors a fuel reduction response. However, when seen in a historical context of how climate has always been the final arbitrator of wildfire in the West, it is clear that fire suppression is not the primary factor in the growing annual acreage burned.



  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    A common sense analysis.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I just hate to read this. Especially since we will be ripping them out for solar farms and housing developments also:

    They are slow-growing and live on average for 500 years, but in in our modern era I guess. 🙁

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    ^^sorry that should read ‘but not in our modern era’.

  4. Marc Bedner Avatar

    A new scientific study of the effects of burning carried out by the prehistoric ancestors of Native Americans, reported in today’s NY Times:
    Ancient Fires Drove Large Mammals Extinct, Study Suggests
    Fossils from La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California suggest that sabertooth cats and other large North American mammals disappeared as a result of wildfires spurred by human activity.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Thank you for this, Marc!

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Yes, thank you.

      I’ve been stymied by what to say after reading it.

      There’s a line in there that reminds us that today’s wildlife are the survivors of those extinctions – so it left me with the terrible, defeated feeling that those we didn’t get back then, we’ll get now and in the future!

      There was another article I read about an endangered fish that work is being done to save, described as ‘having no economic value’.

      But then I read this story, and it does give some hope:

  5. Glenn Monahan Avatar
    Glenn Monahan

    I believe that all the talk about Traditional Ecological Knowledge is another symptom of our society’s fixation on victim culture. It’s becoming increasingly trendy today to give native Americans credit for their superiority- cultural, spiritual, wisdom, and ecological values. There are simply too many examples of Indians disrespecting the planet to convince me that they are any differently from most others people. Example… who owns the largest open pit coal strip mine in Montana – the Spring Creek Mine? THE NAVAJO NATION! The coal is rail freighted to British Columbia, then shipped to China, and burned in Chinese power plants. To heck with the “sacred” prairies and the atmosphere. So much for “traditional ecological knowledge” – what a joke.

    1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      what is the US/CAN foreign policy – an expression of victim culture?
      how environmentally devastated were England / France at the time when their colonists/refugees showed up in N-America?
      you could mention Native American casinos as well

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Good to see you, Mareks!


Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner