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Ancient indigenous New Mexican community knew how to sustainably coexist with wildfire

SMU News

Originally Posted: January 20, 2021

Wildfires are the enemy when they threaten homes in California and elsewhere. But a new study led by SMU suggests that people living in fire-prone places can learn to manage fire as an ally to prevent dangerous blazes, just like people who lived nearly 1,000 years ago.

“We shouldn’t be asking how to avoid fire and smoke,” said SMU anthropologist and lead author Christopher Roos. “We should ask ourselves what kind of fire and smoke do we want to coexist with.”

An interdisciplinary team of scientists published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documenting centuries of fire management by Native American farmers. The team included scientists from SMU, the University of Arizona, Harvard University, Simon Fraser University, the US Geological Survey, Baylor University, the University of Illinois, and the University of South Florida.

Ancestors of the Native American community in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico lived continuously in fire-prone forests for more than five centuries. Similar to today’s communities in the western U.S. forests, Pueblos of the Jemez people had relatively high population densities, and the forested landscape they managed was an area larger than the city of Chicago.

Starting in the 1100s, the Jemez people limited fire spread and improved forest resilience to climate variability by creating purposeful burning of small patches of the forest around their community, researchers found.

“The area around each village would have been a fire-free zone,” Roos said. “There were no living trees within two football fields of each village, and the hundreds or thousands of trampling feet mean that fine fuels, such as grasses, herbs, and shrubs, to carry surface fires would have been rare too. The agricultural areas would have seen targeted applications of fire to clean fields after harvest, to recycle plant nutrients as fertilizer, and to clear new fields.”

Roos calls those controlled burns “the right kind of fire and smoke.” The Jemez practice of burning wood for heat, light, and cooking in their homes also removed much of the fuel that could burn in wildfires, he said.

Roos said the ancient Jemez model could work today. Many communities in the western United States, including those of Native Americans, still rely on wood-burning to generate heat during the winter, he said. Regularly setting small, low-intensity fires in a patchwork around where people live to clear out flammable material would also follow the Jemez model, he said.

“Some sort of public-private tribal partnership might do a lot of good, empowering tribal communities to oversee the removal of the small trees that have overstocked the forests and made them vulnerable to dangerous fires, while also providing wood fuel for people who need it,” Roos said. READ MORE