History helps makes sense of wildfires

History helps makes sense of wildfires

21 December 2011

published by www.gvnews.com  

USA — North of Albuquerque, the people of the Pueblo of Jemez may hold a secret to dealing with wildfires in the ponderosa pine forests of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

The tribe has lived in these forests since before the Spanish conquistadors explored the region in the 16th century. This long history makes the pueblo an ideal place for University of Arizona researchers to study how humans in the Southwest have dealt with wildfires over the centuries.

With backing from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the USDA under a four-year, $1.5 million grant, the UA-led team includes experts in tree-ring science, fire ecology, forest fire behavior, archaeology, anthropology and education.

The team’s goal is to figure out how to keep forests healthy using prescribed burns and other methods to minimize the destructive power of large fires. This goal will become increasingly important as drought conditions make woodlands more likely to burst into flames.

Last summer, nearly 900,000 acres of Arizona smoldered after more than a dozen fires broke out across the state. The largest, the Wallow Fire, torched nearly half a million acres in Arizona and New Mexico. It destroyed 32 residences and cost at least $50 million to put out, as reported by fire officials in June. The Department of Justice, however, estimated the cost at $79 million when it filed charges in August against two men for starting the fire.

The researchers will combine historical data on drought conditions with interviews of Native American tribes, including the Pueblo of Jemez, to examine how human activities affected forest fires in the past.

Tribal research

T.J. Ferguson, a professor of practice in UA’s School of Anthropology, will lead the ethnographic research. His team plans to interview members of the Pueblo of Jemez, who historically lived in what is now known as the Santa Fe National Forest, about 100 miles north of Albuquerque. The team will also survey the Pueblo of Zuni, the White Mountain Apache tribe and the Hopi tribe, who lived along the Mogollon Rim in central Arizona and western New Mexico in similar ponderosa pine forests.

“People and fire have been together for thousands of years,” Ferguson said.

In the past, forests endured and even thrived because fires tended to burn frequently, which reduced the material, or fuel load, available to burn. The flames charred grasses but left the larger trees intact. These fires kept the forests healthy by reducing the undergrowth and preventing trees from crowding together in dog-hair thickets, or dense clusters of trees.

“People once made forests resilient,” said Christopher Roos, an assistant professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University who is attached to the UA project. By using fire to clear land for farming, the tribes culled the small trees and grasses that could otherwise have carried flames into the crowns of large trees. Developed over centuries, these land management techniques may have helped the tribes to live and farm within the forests in a sustainable way.

Today’s practice of fire suppression has allowed undergrowth to thrive, making fires bigger, hotter and more dangerous. “Changes in land use, especially the modern combination of both cattle grazing and active fire suppression, make forests much more vulnerable to the most dangerous kinds of fires,” Roos said.

Part of Ferguson’s job will be to build a common vocabulary for the tribes and the fire researchers. This lexicon will enable fire researchers to communicate with tribal members, matching the jargon-laced terminology of modern fire research with tribal descriptions of native species like trees and grasses.

The project will start with the Jemez people, but the researchers will also interview the three other tribes. Since the Jemez people relied on an oral tradition, interviewing tribal elders will help anthropologists discover specific techniques used by the tribe to clear and maintain the land.

Ferguson was invited to join the project by Thomas W. Swetnam, the grant’s principal investigator and director of the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. The lab will incorporate the interviews with new analytical tools that use tree rings to evaluate the history and ferocity of past fires.

As researchers begin to understand the historical record of fire in the Southwest, they will pass the information along to the U.S. Forest Service and the USDA. “We can get better management of the forest by understanding the variables,” Ferguson said.

“It’s urgent that we know how to restore resiliencies, especially in the Jemez Mountains,” Swetnam said. Last summer Las Conchas Fire blackened this part of New Mexico at the same time Wallow charred acres of Arizona.

“Las Conchas was the largest in state history,” Swetnam said. “It was devastating to the landscape. In some places that fire burned so intensely that it’s not coming back to forest for centuries.”

Fires will occur more often because of the drought that has gripped the Southwest and will continue to do so, according to the National Weather Service. This predicament makes understanding how to manage fire all the more important.

“It doesn’t mean keeping fire out,” Swetnam said, “but we want to prevent these extraordinary and enormous fires from happening.”

Sampling trees

For a month in 2012 and another month in 2013, researchers from UA’s tree ring lab will cut cross-sections from hundreds of fallen ponderosa pines. Using ancient pueblos as starting points, the researchers will work their way outward. They will record the scarring and thickness of the tree rings to figure out what types of fires burned there — low-intensity fires or hot fires that seared bark and climbed into the tree crowns.

With this information, researchers can build a computer model that includes details about the species and age of each tree and its location in the landscape. They can add this information, along with topography maps, to computer models used by the U.S. Forest Service at Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Mont.

Some of the top fire modelers in the world will test and verify the data, according to Swetnam. This model can then be used to study the larger effects of a drying climate on future wildfires.

Educational outreach

The UA project builds on two years of development and a year of investigation at the Jemez Ranger District in Jemez Springs, N.M. The new grant will fund outreach with local communities in Arizona and New Mexico through the UA College of Education.

Anthropologist Christopher Roos and Sara Chavarria, the director of Education Outreach at the UA, developed a program called Funds of Knowledge that will incorporate ethnographic research with interviews of Jemez tribal members. Middle school and high school teachers in the tribal lands will guide their students in gathering information through oral histories.

This program will last three years, including a two-year program for teachers to study the feasibility of a science institute and develop a new curriculum for classrooms.

“Every NSF grant has an educational component, but we’ve created an outreach arm that’s really planned and is something we can pull off,” Chavarria said.

Interviews from the students will be included in Ferguson’s research, and discoveries from his team will be shared with the students as part of their class work. Having students interview tribal elders will allow the project to represent the tribe more accurately, Chavarria said. The students are more likely to understand delicate cultural issues.

The students who work on this project are future land managers, whether they become forestry experts, homeowners, ranchers or farmers. Immersing the students in scientific research will benefit them and also help to vest the Jemez community in the project.

Over the last 700 years, as many as 10,000 farmers have worked the land around the Pueblo of Jemez. Understanding how they managed the land will provide clues to dealing with the wildfires of the future, Roos said.

“We hope that this project can call attention to the fact that people can live with fire,” said Roos. “But we may need to change our attitude about it.”

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