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How Indigenous burn practices save the land from fire

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Massive wildfires in recent years have wreaked havoc on the United States, causing health complications, disrupting industries and displacing longtime residents. While wildfires are intensifying across the country due to climate change, scientists said of the U.S. Forest Service Past policy partially responsible. In the 20th century, the agency extinguished all wildfires, even small fires that did not pose an immediate danger to life or infrastructure.

However, in ecosystems like the Southwest, some fire is needed to stay healthy. Regular fires prevent forest overgrowth, sweep away dead organic matter and encourage the growth of certain plant species. I have attempted to replicate indigenous wildfire management practices.

One such practice is creating a controlled “good fire”, also called regulated combustion. Intentionally burning land helps kill fuels such as grass and small trees that contribute to large, devastating wildfires. But scientists question the extent to which these cultural burning practices affected ecosystems when fires had their natural course, before Forest Service control policies existed. A new study from Southern Methodist University gives new insight into how indigenous burning has impacted the land.

Research published Dec. 7 scientific progressexamined the fire practices of three different tribes living in the Southwest and compared it to the size and intensity of historic wildfires. We found that designated open burning served as a buffer for climatic conditions.

[Related: How we can burn our way to a better future]

This data reflects the typical climate and fire patterns of the southwest. One to three years of above-average rainfall followed a year of severe drought. Rainfall allowed more vegetation to grow, and drought dried grass and fueled the spread of fires. This pattern occurred regardless of whether the tribe practiced prescribed burning. However, the timing and magnitude of fires became unaffected by humidity patterns when fires actually burned, the authors of the study explained.

“This study pays great attention to where and when fires occur, and how to examine the relationship between fires and climate and the frequency and seasonality of fires. ‘ said. christopher guitar man, study co-author and fire ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “For me, it reveals the traces of indigenous control in a way that has never been shown before.”

Much of what was done in this study was to analyze exactly when and how the tribes used fire. Each tribe included in the study – the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Jemez, and the Apaches – used fire in different ways depending on their economic and cultural conditions. The Navajo Dineh used fire primarily to manage pastures. Fires were less frequent on the land where their sheep were pastured. However, fire rates were higher on land that acted as free-growing passages of movement. The Hemish of the Pueblo of Jemez used fire in horticulture to clear up fields and recycle nutrients. They also used it to burn patches of shrubs and lead long, straight re-sprouting branches suitable for basket weaving.His Ndée of Apache used fire to manipulate wild plants and I helped grow tobacco and drove deer into certain areas.

[Related: Fires can help forests hold onto carbon—if they’re set the right way]

After routine burning, the total amount of burned area remained the same, but the size of the burn patch was different from the period without routine burning. There could be small fires instead of one big wildfire. Christopher Roos, lead author of the study and professor of anthropology at Southern University, said: “Many small prescribed burns can reduce the climate vulnerability of places that are important to us. “Whether it’s around human communities or other parts of the landscape.” Methodist University.

Roos collecting coring samples in the field. Michael Aiuvarathit

Roos says indigenous knowledge and expertise played an integral role in shaping the way paper conveyed prescribed burning practices. Four tribe members co-authored a recent study. The team relied on archaeological evidence of prescribed burnings to determine when the tribes occupied the land. But the record isn’t perfect. For example, Ndeé leaves few archaeological traces, but its members say it has been on the land since time immemorial. “Nobody was happy with the idea that there were no people, even without archaeological evidence,” Ruth says. “So it’s not about periods of use and periods of non-use, or periods of presence and periods of absence. It’s periods of intense use and periods of low use.”

Roos hopes the study will provide strategies for policy makers in the face of increasing large-scale wildfires in the Southwest. These indigenous practices have positive benefits for the environment and people, Roos said.

“I’m not indigenous, but I try to flag people in decision-making positions that Native American people have been managing fires in these landscapes for centuries,” he says. “These long histories of Native Americans and fire should give us hope about what we can do, rather than feeling helpless in the face of climate and wildfire challenges.”

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