USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station

Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Research Topics Fire Science

Traditional uses of fire

Four people standing in knee-high brown vegetation with a low-burning fire in the background.
Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe directs a burning treatment for a patch of sourberry plants. Photo by Belinda Aldern.

Traditionally, tribes inhabiting the Sierra Nevada adapted to natural fire regimes. When and where lightning ignitions were not adequate to produce desired fire effects in the forest, tribes utilized fire for many purposes including: enhancing food resources (such as acorns, nuts, berries, and greens) and materials for basketry, utensils, implements, and weapons; improving travel and safety (clearing fuel and vegetation around water sources, along trails, and around camps and villages); and increasing productivity and diversity of vegetation that promoted other valued fungi, plants and wildlife.

Tribal uses of fire influenced natural fire regimes and created cultural fire regimes in some localities of the landscape by changing the frequency, seasonality, intensity, and ignition patterns of fire and modifying accumulation of fuels (fuel loading). Collection of fuel wood for heating and food preservation also reduced fuel loading and influenced fire behavior around areas of the landscape where tribal subsistence and ceremonial activities took place.

Managing fire and cultural resources

Tribes’ historical fire use altered forest habitats.Today, the structure and composition of forests in some areas across the landscape bear the legacy of former tribal management, and tribes still value many fire-adapted habitats and forest resources. In addition to artifacts, objects, structures, and sites of pre-and historic human use, tribes consider many natural resources to be cultural resources as well.

The federal government is responsible for managing natural and cultural resources to support tribal livelihoods and promote the health and welfare of tribes. As part of this federal-tribal trust, the U.S. Forest Service is obligated to minimize or mitigate impacts to cultural and heritage resources. Fire managers must strive for effective consultation and inclusive tribal participation when developing strategies for managing wildfire or planning activities to reduce hazardous fuels. Archaeologists, tribal historic preservation officers, and tribal practitioners can help fire managers understand which tribal cultural resources may be affected by wildfire or hazardous fuels treatments.

Publications and references:
  • Anderson, M.K. 2006. The use of fire by Native Americans in California. In: Sugihara et al., eds. Fire in California’s Ecosystems. 417-430.
  • Lake, F.K.; Long, J.W. 2014. Fire and tribal cultural resources. In: Long, J.W.; Quinn-Davidson, L.; Skinner, C.N., eds. Science synthesis to support socioecological resilience in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Range. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-247. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station: 173-186. Chap. 4.2.
  • Kimmerer, R.; Lake, F. 2001. The role of indigenous burning in land management. Journal of Forestry. 99(11): 36-41.