Fire & Traditional Knowledge
Human Dimensions of Fire Management
Until recently, most contemporary ecologists have ignored or diminished anecdotal historical accounts and anthropologists' reports about aboriginal fire in the Great Basin. Literature review shows that Indians practiced regular use of fire for many purposes, including the obvious reasons of increasing the availability of desired plants, maintaining habitats for animals used as food, and driving game during hunts. Historical accounts of prehistoric anthropogenic firing, inferences from fire-scar data, and data regarding annual production capability of representative sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)-perennial grass ecological sites indicate that prehistoric conditions were neither fuel- nor ignition-limited. According to many sources, this 'active management' by Indians was widespread, significant, and more common than lightning-caused fires, resulting in mosaic vegetation patterns that subsequently moderated the behavior of 'natural fires.' This interaction between Indian-burning and lightning fires may have strongly influenced the pre-Euro-American settlement vegetation of the Great Basin. At the very least, the landscape was a patchwork of areas altered by aboriginal people and areas shaped primarily by bio-physical processes. Based on this prehistoric precedent, current historically unprecedented conditions (fuel load and exotic weed invasion threats), and predicted climate change, contemporary active management of sagebrush-perennial grass communities is paramount. Restoration measures should be scientifically based and tailored to achieve ecological resilience and functionality in specific sites. Prescribed fire is not always ecologically appropriate or judicious, especially in Wyoming big sagebrush (A. tridentata spp. wyomingensis) communities, so managers should consider using other alternatives where an intentional low severity distubance is deemed necessary. Properly planned active management would disrupt fuel continuity for lighthning fires, ensure ecological process and successional integrity, and benefit multiple uses on a landscape scale.