Native American use of fire
Many people believe that North America, before the coming of the Spanish explorers, missionaries, and settlers, was a totally pristine, natural, wilderness world with ancient forests covering the landscapes. This ideal world was populated by millions of Indian people who, somewhat amazingly, “were transparent in the landscape, living as natural elements of the ecosphere. Their world, the New World of Columbus, was a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.” This peaceful, mythic, magical ideal — sometimes referred to as tabula rasa — has symbolized the thinking behind much of the modern environmental movement. However these impressions of a "benign people treading lightly on the land" is wrong in its view of an entirely natural landscape: natives played a large role in maintaining the diversity of their ecosystems.
|“||The most significant type of environmental change brought about by Precolumbian human activity was the modification of vegetation. … Vegetation was primarily altered by the clearing of forest and by intentional burning. Natural fires certainly occurred but varied in frequency and strength in different habitats. Anthropogenic fires, for which there is ample documentation, tended to be more frequent but weaker, with a different seasonality than natural fires, and thus had a different type of influence on vegetation. The result of clearing and burning was, in many regions, the conversion of forest to grassland, savanna, scrub, open woodland, and forest with grassy openings.||”|
Fire scientists and ecologists often find old fire scars in trees going back hundreds of years. Geographers studying lake sediments often find evidence of charcoal layers going back thousands of years, attributing the data to prehistoric fires caused by climatic warming and drying conditions. Since the trees and sediments cannot document how the fires started, lightning becomes the easiest “natural” explanation. Early researchers thought that no large burning was carried out by natives, but research during the latter half of the 20th century has shown that many or most of the presettlement fires were intentionally caused.
Keeping large areas of forest and mountains free of undergrowth and small trees was just one of many reasons for using fire in ecosystems. Intentional burning has greatly modified landscapes across the continent in many subtle ways that have often been interpreted as natural by the early explorers, trappers, and settlers. Many research scientists who study presettlement forest and savanna fire evidence tend to attribute most prehistoric fires as being caused by lightning (natural) rather than by humans. This problem arises because there was no systematic record keeping of these fire events. Thus the interaction of people and ecosystems is down played or ignored, which often leads to the conclusion that people are a problem in "natural" ecosystems rather than the primary force in their development.
Romantic and primitivist writers such as William Henry Hudson, Longfellow, Francis Parkman, and Thoreau were major inventors of the The Pristine Myth, which became part of American heritage. Influenced by Western prejudice against primitivism and hunter-gatherer societies, many people still believe that Native Americans lived in complete harmony with the environment and neither disturbed nor destroyed but took only what was absolutely needed for survival. One of the powerful technologies which Native Americans had was fire, and they clearly changed the landscape with it. Sometimes to clear the woods, sometimes to create a berry patch, the changes spread across the continents.
Role of fire by natives
Although there are no written documents describing the intentional, controlled burning of forests, it is believed by some that the cumulative impact of burning by Native Americans profoundly altered the landscape. When first encountered by Europeans, many ecosystems were the result of repeated fires every one to three years, resulting in the replacement of forests with grassland or savanna, or opening up the forest by removing undergrowth. More forest exists today in some parts of North America than when the Europeans first arrived. In South America, the cerrado of South America have been coexisting with fire since ancient times; initially as natural fires caused by lightning or volcanic activity, and later caused by man. Terra preta soils, created by slow burning, are found mainly in Amazonia, where estimates of the area covered range from 0.1 to 0.3%, or 6,300 to 18,900 km² of low forested Amazonia to 1.0% or more (twice the surface of Great-Britain).
There is some argument about the effect of human-caused burning when compared to lightning in western North America. There is agreement that natives played a significant role across the eastern part of that continent. As Emily Russell (1983) has pointed out, “There is no strong evidence that Indians purposely burned large areas....The presence of Indians did, however, undoubt- edly increase the frequency of fires above the low numbers caused by lightning.” As might be expected, Indian fire use had its greatest impact “in local areas near Indian habitations.”
Generally, the American Indians burned parts of the ecosystems in which they lived to promote a diversity of habitats, especially increasing the "edge effect," which gave the Indians greater security and stability to their lives.
Most primary or secondary accounts relate to the purposeful burning to establish or keep "mosaics, resource diversity, environmental stability, predictability, and the maintenance of ecotones." These purposeful fires by almost every Native American tribe differ from natural fires by the seasonality of burning, frequency of burning certain areas, and the intensity of the fire. Indians tended to burn differently depending on the resources being managed. Hardly ever did the various tribes purposely burn when the forests were most vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire. Indeed, for some Indians, saving the forest from fire was crucial for survival. Those Indian tribes that used fire in moist ecosystems tended to burn in the late spring just before new growth appears, while in areas that are drier fires tended to be set during the late summer or early fall since the main growth of plants and grasses occurs in the winter. For the most part, tribes set fires that did not destroy entire forests or ecosystems, were relatively easy to control, and stimulated new plant growth. Indians burned selected areas yearly, every other year, or intervals as long as five years.
|“||the modification of the American continent by fire at the hands of "Indigenous people" was the result of repeated, controlled, surface burns on a cycle of one to three years, broken by occasional holocausts from escape fires and periodic conflagrations during times of drought. Even under ideal circumstances, accidents occurred: signal fires escaped and campfires spread, with the result that valuable range was untimely scorched, buffalo driven away, and villages threatened. Burned corpses on the prairie were far from rare. So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savanna, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush. Most of the impenetrable woods encountered by explorers were in bogs or swamps from which fire was excluded; naturally drained landscape was nearly everywhere burned. Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed. The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it.||”|
—Steve Pyne, 
Arrival of the Europeans
Fires indicated the presence of humans to many European explorers and settlers. In San Pedro Bay in 1542, chaparral fires provided that signal to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and later to others across all of what would be named California.
By the 17th century, as most European explorers, fur traders, and settlers began to arrive in North America, native populations were on the verge of collapse because of new diseases (such as smallpox) and widespread epidemics (influenza) against which the Indians had no immunity. In addition, warfare (with old enemies and new immigrants), new technologies (horse, iron, and firearms), change of economy (to fur trading and sheep grazing), different food sources (European-style farming and imperial handouts), and treaties (restricting or removing Indians from traditional lands) all had significant consequences— mainly negative—on native cultures and populations.
By the 19th century, many native languages and tribes were becoming extinct and knowledge of the old ways was dying. Only a handful of ethnographers and anthropologists (many employed by the Smithsonian Institution and/or the American Bureau of Ethnology) felt the need to record the Indian languages and lifestyles before the last of many tribes disappeared. Even fewer of these researchers asked questions about the native peoples deliberately changing ecosystems.
Settlers and the Rich Prairies
Early explorers and fur trappers often observed huge burned-over or prairie/barren areas with many dead trees "littering" the landscape, without knowledge of whether the fires were natural or caused by Indians. Written accounts by early settlers remain incomplete, although many noted that there was evidence of burned or scorched trees and open prairies or savannas with tall grasses in every river basin. There are many other accounts of travelers in forest areas commenting on the ability to see long distances through the forest, which was lacking in shrubs, brush, and small trees. The abundance of open prairie areas, which could be millions of acres large, was often incorrectly thought to be the result of poor soils that would not support trees or even crops.
However, a number of settlers/farmers saw that the prairies were potentially rich land (besides that fact that it was "ready for the plow" without having to clear the land). This grass-covered prairie land was one of the primary reasons for settlers to head west to the Oregon Territory and California, and later to homestead the Great Plains. In the late 19th century until today, the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canadian Prairies were to become the farming “breadbasket” for the two nations.
Through the turn of the 20th century, settlers often used fire to clear the land of brush and trees in order to make new farm land for crops and new pastures for grazing animals – the North American variation of slash and burn technology – while others deliberately burned to reduce the threat of major fires – the so‑called "light burning" technique. Since the uplands were still in government ownership (public domain), many settlers adjacent to the hills often either deliberately set fires and/or allowed fires to "run free." Also, sheep and cattle owners, as well as shepherds and cowboys, often set the alpine meadows and prairies on fire at the end of the grazing season to burn the dried grasses, reduce brush, and kill young trees, as well as encourage the growth of new grasses for the following summer and fall grazing season.
Reasons for burning
Henry T. Lewis, who has authored more books and articles on this subject than anyone else, concluded that there were at least 70 different reasons for the Indians firing the vegetation. Other writers have listed fewer number of reasons, using different categories. In summary, there are eleven major reasons for American Indian ecosystem burning:
- Hunting ‑ The burning of large areas was useful to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows (rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over cliffs where the animals could be killed easily. Some tribes used a surround or circle fire to force rabbits and game into small areas. The Seminoles even practiced hunting alligators with fire. Torches were used to spot deer and attract fish (note - fish are not attracted to light). Smoke was used to drive/dislodge raccoons and bears from hiding.
- Crop management ‑ Burning was used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca, greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and tobacco. One report of fire being used to bring rain (overcome drought). Clearing ground of grass and brush was done to facilitate the gathering of acorns. Fire was used to roast mescal and obtain salt from grasses.
- Insect collection ‑ Some tribes used a "fire surround" to collect and roast crickets, grasshoppers, Pandora Pinemoths in pine forests, and collect honey from bees.
- Pest management ‑ Burning was sometimes used to reduce insects (black flies, ticks, and mosquitos) and rodents, as well as kill mistletoe that invaded mesquite and oak trees and kill the tree moss favored by deer (thus forcing them to the valleys). Fire was also used to kill poisonous snakes.
- Improve growth and yields ‑ Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries), and tobacco. Fire was also used to promote plant structure and health, increase the growth of reeds and grasses used as basket materials, beargrass, deergrass, hazel, and willows.
- Fireproofing areas ‑ There are some indications that fire was used to protect certain medicine plants by clearing an area around the plants, as well as to fireproof areas, especially around settlements, from destructive wildfires. Fire was also used to keep prairies open from encroaching shrubs and trees.
- Warfare and signaling ‑ Indians used fire to deprive the enemy of hiding places in tall grass and underbrush, to destroy enemy property, and to camouflage an escape. Large fires (not the Hollywood version of blankets and smoke) were ignited to signal enemy movements and to gather forces for combat.
- Economic extortion ‑ Some tribes also used fire for a "scorched earth" policy to deprive settlers and fur traders from easy access to big game and thus benefiting from being "middlemen" in supplying pemmican and jerky.
- Clearing areas for travel ‑ Fires were sometimes started to clear trails for travel through areas that were overgrown with grass or brush, especially along ridgelines. Burned areas helped with providing better visibility through forests and brush lands for hunting and warfare purposes. It also reduced cover for wolves, bears, cougars, as well as enemy tribes who often hid along the edges of trails.
- Felling trees ‑ Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
- Clearing riparian areas ‑ Fire was commonly used to clear brush from riparian areas and marshes for new grasses and sedges, plant growth (cattails), and tree sprouts (to benefit beaver, muskrats, moose, and waterfowl), including mesquite, cottonwood, and willows.
- Blackburn, Thomas C. and Kat Anderson (eds.). 1993. Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press. Several chapters on Indian use of fire, one by Henry T. Lewis as well as his final “In Retrospect.”
- Bonnicksen, Thomas M. 2000. America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Especially see chapter 7 “Fire Masters” pages 143-216.
- Boyd, Robert T. (ed.). 1999. Indians, Fire, and the Land. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press. An excellent series of papers about Indian burning in the West.
- Lewis, Henry T. 1982. A Time for Burning. Occasional Publication No. 17. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies. 62 pages.
- Lutz, Harold J. 1959. Aboriginal Man and White Men as Historical Causes of Fires in the Boreal Forest, with Particular Reference to Alaska. Yale School of Forestry Bulletin No. 65. New Haven, CT: Yale University. 49 pages.
- Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 654 pages. See Chapter 2 “The Fire from Asia” pages 66–122.
- Russell, Emily W.B. 1983. "Indian‑Set Fires in the Forests of the Northeastern United States." Ecology, Vol. 64, #1 (Feb): 78‑88.
- Stewart, Omer C. with Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson (eds.). 2002. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 364 pages.
- Vale, Thomas R. (ed.). 2002. Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape. Washington, DC: Island Press. An interesting set of articles that generally depict landscape changes as natural events rather that Indian caused.
- Whitney, Gordon G. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. See especially Chapter 5 “Preservers of the Ecological Balance Wheel” on pages 98–120.
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- Neil G. Sugihara, Jan W. Van Wagtendonk, Kevin E. Shaffer, Joann Fites-Kaufman, Andrea E. Thode, ed. (2006). "17". Fire in California's Ecosystems. University of California Press. p. 417. ISBN 978-0-520-24605-8.
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