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How preserving Native American traditions could help prevent wildfires

Researchers said we can learn from Native Americans how to be less vulnerable to fires.

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By Pol Allingham via SWNS

Practicing Native American traditions could help prevent devastating wildfires, according to a new study.

Researchers showed how "cultural burning” weakened the link between climate conditions and fire activity for around 400 years in the southwestern United States.

The age-old practice involved deliberately setting controlled fires on the land.

A Southern Methodist University, Texas, team studied a network of 4,824 fire-scarred trees in Arizona and New Mexico, once homes of the Apache, Navajo and Jemez tribes.

They discovered a pattern - between the years 1500 and 1900 it would rain more than usual for one to three years, allowing more vegetation to grow.

A fire would follow, leaving a year of significant drought.

However, the study showed Native American tribes broke the pattern using traditional burning practices.

The tribes' success spanned hundreds of square kilometers and whole mountain ranges.

For millennia Native American tribes living in the southwestern U.S. held controlled fires of small trees, grasses and shrubs at regular intervals.

They aimed to clear out underbrush and promote the growth of new plants.

By creating the patchwork of small, intentional fires they removed a lot of the fuel that could burn in wildfires.

A controlled burn in Saint Louis protected prairie fields, Missouri, USA. Controlled burns help deplete ground fuel and thus help prevent damaging wild fires with high devastation yields. Conserve.
(Nature's Charm via Shutterstock)

Lead author Professor Christopher Roos, an SMU fire anthropologist, said this could explain the break in the pattern of climate fires.

He said: “What’s remarkable is that this impact of Native American fire management was evident across hundreds of square kilometers.

“That is across entire mountain ranges.

“Native American or Indigenous fire practices have shown us how people living in fire-prone places can positively coexist with wildfire in sustainable ways by actively engaging with it.”

Roos said today we can learn from Native Americans how to be less vulnerable to fires.

Of the study co-authors, four are tribal members and helped with the representation of their people’s culture and history and interpreted the fire data.

The study published in the journal Science Advances noted Apache, Navajo and Jemez communities practiced cultural burning at different times and in different ways.

The SMU team interviewed tribal members in each community to understand how they handled smoke and fire centuries ago.

Tree-ring fire records were also compared with paleoclimate records.

The former is used to calculate a tree’s age and determine wet and dry weather patterns, such as moisture and drought, and show scarring left by fires.

Tree ring scars are scientists' best evidence for fire activity.

Ancient tree-ring data from the International Multiproxy Paleofire Database was compiled by the North American Fire Network, focussing on dry coniferous forests in New Mexico and Arizona.

It was combined to create a superposed epoch analysis, where researchers hunt for significant deviations from normal climate patterns before and during years when there were many fires.

Deviations from the pattern would suggest climate was not the main cause of fire activity.

Climate Change wooden sign with a desert background
(ESB Professional via Shutterstock)

Roos said: “We found that during periods of intensive use [of controlled burns], most of the discrete stands of trees we looked at don’t have any significant fire-climate patterns.

“So, in this case, the absence of significant climate patterns when Native Americans were managing fire is taken as strong evidence that Native American fire management itself is creating that lack of fire-climate patterns since all other places and time periods show those significant climate associations.”

The Apache tribe lives across central Arizona to Texas and mainly used fire to gather, garden and hunt - fires might be set to lure deer and elk.

Between Arizona and New Mexico, the Navajo tribe raised sheep, hunted, gathered and gardened in small family-based communities, and research suggests this activity reduced fire activity in pine forests.

In the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, the Jemez people purposefully burned small patches of the forest around their community which limited the spread of fire and made the forest more resilient to variations in the climate.

Roos encourages other scientists to work with Indigenous communities to develop and reconstruct traditional practices, such as cultural burning.

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