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Project ID: 10-3-01-20

Year: 2010

Date Started: 05/15/2010

Ending Date:  07/30/2014

Title: Pre-Settlement Fire Patterns: Records of Natural Fire or Anthropogenic Fire Use?

Project Proposal Abstract: Ecosystem management goals of restoring or maintaining natural patterns of fire in temperate forest ecosystems in the Americas are dependent on the ability to identify natural fire regimes; however, the identification of natural fire regimes is predicated on the untested assumption that fire history reflects natural patterns of fire instead of Native American fire use. The focus on restoring or maintaining natural patterns of fire is in response to the understanding that altered patterns of fire can have cascading ecological consequences for future fires and forest health. Accurate assessments of natural fire regimes are critical for the identification of fire suppression impacts, development of restoration plans, and forecasting potential impacts of climate change on patterns of fire. Dendroecological fire history reconstructions for the pre-EuroAmerican settlement era (ca. pre-1860) play a central role in the identification of natural fire regimes. The pre-settlement era is used in contrast to the settlement and fire exclusion eras because of documented manipulation of natural fire from human land-use practices in these later periods. Despite the critically important role that the identification of natural fire regimes plays in ecosystem management, the central assumption that pre-settlement records of fire reflect natural fire has not been critically examined. The debate surrounding the influence of Native American fire use has traditionally revolved around the relative importance of fuels, climate, and ignitions, with many fire historians arguing that ignitions are saturated due to the high number of lightning strikes. Ignition saturation implies that additional ignitions from humans will not influence patterns of fire. As such it is assumed that Native Americans could not have had a significant influence on pre-settlement records of fire. Interestingly, the ignition saturation argument is not applied to the settlement era, during which increased fires are at least partially attributed to EuroAmerican land-use practices that included fire use. Moreover, anecdotally the fact that the largest fire in the 2002 extreme fire season in Colorado, which has some of the highest lightning strike densities in the western US, was human set, suggests that ignitions in addition to fuels and climate are influential on fire occurrence. Despite the importance of the ignition saturation assumption for ecosystem management planning, no empirical study has ever investigated this assumption. The goal of the proposed study is to develop and test a research framework to identify the relative importance of ignitions on fire occurrence and the potential role of Native American fire use on pre-settlement records of fire for study areas with significantly different amounts of natural ignitions in the northern and southern US Rocky Mountains (centered on Glacier NP and Rocky Mountain NP regions respectively), and southern Andes of Chile (Araucarian region). Methodologically, for each study site we will 1) use geographic information system spatial analysis techniques to identify the relative importance of fuels, climate, and ignitions on fire occurrence for the modern period, and 2) directly investigate the role of Native American burning by comparing climate and anthropogenic models of pre-settlement fire with actual fire history records for each study site. The development of the proposed research framework will provide a significant progress in fire research and enable researchers from other regions to test for the potential influence of Native American fire use in records of fire history.

Principal Investigator: Jason S. Sibold

Agency/Organization: Colorado State University

Branch or Dept: Department of Anthropology

Other Project Collaborators




Branch or Dept

Co-Principal Investigator

Mauro E. Gonzalez

Universidad Austral de Chile

Faculty of Forest Science

Co-Principal Investigator

Jason M. LaBelle

Colorado State University

Department of Anthropology

Co-Principal Investigator

Maria N. Zedeno

University of Arizona-Tucson

School of Anthropology

Federal Cooperator

Laurie S. Huckaby

Forest Service

RMRS-Forestry Sciences Lab-Fort Collins

Federal Fiscal Representative

Susan T. Major

Forest Service

RMRS-Rocky Mountain Research Station

Project Locations

Fire Science Exchange Network

Northern Rockies

Northern Rockies

Southern Rockies








Rocky Mountain National Park




Arapaho National Forest




Roosevelt National Forest




Glacier National Park

Project Deliverables

Final Report view or print

("Results presented in JFSP Final Reports may not have been peer-reviewed and should be interpreted as tentative until published in a peer-reviewed source.")

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Supporting Documents

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