Research Spotlight: Trial by fire, and how humans respond to it

The 2011 Wallow Fire in ArizonaAn interdisciplinary team of researchers will examine how humans in the Southwest have responded to changes in the surrounding forests over multiple centuries. The research is funded by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project is about forest fire history, fuels and forests, how human activities have changed them, and the influence of drought and dry conditions, said Thomas W. Swetnam, principal investigator on the grant and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Christopher Roos, archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, is co-principal investigator for the study, which will use tree-ring and archaeological methods to reveal the fire history of the forest and of the forest close to the human settlement sites.

In addition to Roos and Swetnam, co-principal investigators are T.J. Ferguson, a professor of practice in UA’s School of Anthropology; Sara Chavarria, director of outreach for UA’s College of Education; Robert Keane and Rachel Loehman of the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana; and Matthew J. Liebmann of Harvard University’s department of anthropology.

The scientists are focusing on New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, where native peoples lived within the ponderosa pine forest in significant numbers for centuries before Europeans came to North America.

While fire is a natural part of the Southwest’s forests and grasslands, the region’s massive forest fires this year were exacerbated by decade-long drought. In addition, more people are living in or near fire-adapted ecosystems, increasing the likelihood that human activities will affect and be affected by forest fires.

The team will study the interplay among human activities at the wildland-urban interface, climate change and fire-adapted pine forests.

“Humans and fire are interconnected all the way back to our beginnings,” Swetnam said. “Drought and dry conditions are going to keep going on, so there’s an urgency in understanding what’s happening. We’re seeking to know how we can live in these forests and these landscapes so they are more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Courtesy of the University of Arizona

Left, Arizona’s Wallow fire, the largest in the state’s history, burned from May 29 to July 8, 2011, scorching more than 538,000 acres in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The fire was named for the Bear Wallow Wilderness area, in which it originated. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.)

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