28 Dec 2007, 7:32pm
Fire History
by admin

A Time for Burning

Lewis, Henry T. A Time for Burning. Occasional Publication No. 17. 1982, Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies

Review with selected excerpts by Mike Dubrasich

Anthropologist Henry T. Lewis (1928-2004) earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley and authored Patterns of Indian Burning in California in 1973. Lewis went on to become Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmondton (1971-1975 and 1986-1990). There he conducted research in the burning practices of the native peoples of northern Alberta. In addition to written works, Lewis produced a documentary film, The Fires of Spring, in 1978.

Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson edited and wrote Introductions to Forgotten Fires — Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness by Omer C. Stewart, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Papers by Henry T. Lewis include:

1973 Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory. Lowell John Bean (ed.). Ballena Anthropological Papers Vol. 1. Ramona, CA: Ballena Press. Reprinted in Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson (eds.) Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press.

1977 Maskuta: The Ecology of Indian Fires in Northern Alberta. Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 7, #1: 15-52.

1978 Traditional Uses of Fire in Northern Alberta. Pp. 61-62 in Dennis E. Dube (compiler) Fire Ecology in Resource Management: Workshop Proceedings, December 6-7, 1977. Information Report NOR-X-210. Edmonton, Alberta: Environment Canada, Canadian Forestry Service, Northern Forest Research Centre.

1980 Hunter-Gatherers and Problems for Fire History. Pp. 115-119 in Marvin A. Stokes and John H. Dieterich (technical coordinators) Proceedings of the Fire History Workshop: October 20-24, 1980, Tucson, Arizona. General Technical Report RM-81. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

1980b Indian Fires in Spring: Hunters and Gatherers of the Canadian Forest Shaped Their Habitat with Fire. Natural History, Vol. 89, #1 (Jan): 76-78, 82-83.

1982 Fire Technology and Resource Management in Aboriginal North American and Australia. Pp. 45-67 in Nancy M. Williams and Eugene S. Hunn (eds.) Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter-Gatherers; Proceedings of AAAS Selected Symposium 67. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc.

1982 A Time for Burning. Occasional Publication No. 17. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies.

1985 Why Indians Burned: Specific Versus General Reasons. Pp. 75-80 in James E. Lotan, et al. (technical coordinators) Proceedings–Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, Montana, November, 15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

1990 Reconstructing Patterns of Indian Burning in Southwestern Oregon. Pp. 80-84 in Nan Hannon and Richard K. Olmo (eds.) Living with the Land: The Indians of Southwest Oregon - Proceedings of the1989 Symposium on the Prehistory of Southwest Oregon. Medford, OR: Southern Oregon Historical Society. [See our review here]

1988 Lewis, Henry T. and Theresa A. Ferguson. Yards, Corridors, and Mosaics: How to Burn a Boreal Forest. Human Ecology, Vol. 16, #1 (Mar): 57-77. Notes Indian fire use in NW California and western WA in pages 58-63 .

In A Time for Burning Lewis recounts the burning practices of three Athabaskan groups, the Beaver, Slavey, and Sekani Nations of the boreal forests of Alberta. In addition, his informants included Crees, who moved into the area around 1725 from western Ontario and the James Bay region, and Chipewayans who entered from northeast Alberta during the latter part of the 18th century.

Selected excerpts:

In North America, the most important resources of Indian hunter-gatherers are those found in recently burned areas: bison, moose, deer, elk, hares, grouse, grass seeds, legumes, berries, bulbs. However, natural [lightning] fires are much too irregular in occurrence and distribution to ensure the abundance of these resources. Also, because these fires are normally a phenomenon of late spring and early autumn, they destroy standing crops of plant materials. In some cases, they can seriously delay or fundamentally alter the pattern of plant recovery, which can adversely affect the local adaptations of hunter-gatherers…

It must be emphasized that the Indian uses of fires, as examined here and as shown for California (Lewis 1973), do not simply involve replicating or intensifying the natural fire patterns of summer. Indian practices in both California and northern Alberta differed significantly from the patterns of natural fires in terms of seasonality and frequency. In both areas, they purposefully selected those times of year-spring in Alberta, late fall in California-which were seen to be most beneficial for selected resources and which were safest. They burned on a much more frequent basis than is the case for natural fires. The pronounced differences between natural cycles of fire and the selected uses of burning by Indians demonstrate that foragers did not simply collect and hunt what nature happened to make available. Consequently, it is not simply the ecology of fire that is of concern but, more importantly, the ecology of man-made fires.

Recent experimental work on the place of controlled burning has gone hand-in-hand with the study of natural fire. Such studies, for the California area at least, have shown a remarkable concurrence between Indian burning practice and the recommendations of contemporary science. Actual practices of California Indians were drawn from ethnographic and historical sources and interpreted with reference to scientific studies on controlled burning. However, the controls which may once have been employed can only be inferred from the time of year and the relative frequency of burning. There is no first-hand knowledge available of whether or not controls were involved. In northern Alberta, though, I was able to inquire directly about the specific ways that fires were directed and contained. By controlling fires, the Indians of the western boreal forest were able to establish and maintain plant communities, and the animals found therein, at preferred stages of ecological succession.

All informants agreed that meadows had to be maintained by burning. Within the boreal forest of Alberta, meadows are widely scattered, and they are normally associated with the local buildup of river, stream, and lake sediments. Further north, boreal forest openings are increasingly those of bog and swamp until, well above 60°N latitude, boreal forest gives way to tundra.

Informants were well aware of the association between meadows and the dark or peat soils in which grasses and successively aspen and white spruce grow. They emphasized the fact that if meadows were not periodically burned they would be taken over by brush and forest, and that the loss of grasslands to brush and trees resulted in increased fire danger.

“It used to be all prairie here; now it’s mostly forest. My father told me that long time back there were plenty of buffalo here, all the way (north) to Cold Lake. We were Plains Cree, not like those bush people up north. Now it’s all bush here too,” (Cree, 72, Frog Lake area).

The size of meadows varied from several acres to a full section (640 acres) to a township (36 square miles) or more in size. Some of the largest areas, small prairies in their own right, were being burned until just prior to World War II, in the High Level-Fort Vermilion parkland region. Larger meadows adjacent to settlement areas would be fired by most or all of the men from a community, more or less at the discretion of older men. Women, it was reported, did not participate in burning. Smaller meadows might be burned by a few men, or even a single individual. The number of individuals required was a function of meadow size and proximity to the main settlement area.

“Why the bushes so thick is because … they stop burning-the Indians stopped burning … from about five miles from here you could see straight prairie right to Chance Lake and that timber. Again, from there, the same thing towards Bushy (River). Did you ever see them prairies? My goodness, I even remember. It was really prairie … just prairie, you know, (and) here and there you see little specks of woods and if there were trees there they were quite huge,” (Beaver woman, 69, High Level area).

All informants agreed that spring burning usually occurred from mid-April to late May in most regions, but could be somewhat later in the northernmost portions of the boreal forest. However, climatic conditions, not the calendar, determined the schedule for burning in any given year. It began when the snow cover melted from the meadows. Though late season snows might persist into mid-May or even June, when the winter snowpack was gone and the grasses were sufficiently dry, meadows would be fired.

“In the spring when there is still some snow in the bush that’s the only time most people could burn the open places. It is then that people think that it is best to start the burning. There are a lot of places they don’t burn; they don’t burn all over. But there are many places people know to burn. In time many animals go there; some, like the beaver, about four to five years after. Especially the bear because the new bushes of berries growing in the burned places. Bears live not only on leaves and other plants; they also live on berries. They eat all kinds of berries at any season,” (Slavey, 69, Meander River area).

In early spring, the vegetation surrounding the meadows is still damp, and snow may still cover the ground underneath brush and trees. However, it is not merely the presence of snow that is the fundamental impediment to the spread of fire, but the much greater dampness of the surrounding bush, trees, and grasses. In fact there may be little or no snow but these moisture laden forest fuels will not ignite under such conditions. On the meadow itself soils remain wet or frozen since, in spring, night temperatures regularly drop below freezing. Thus, combinations of ground moisture and frost protect subterranean portions of grasses and other herbaceous plants against fire damage.

Meadows were normally burned each year. Those with lighter growth cover were burned less frequently if plant detritus could not carry a fire satisfactorily, or if fire might set back rather than enhance plant growth. If the budding of brush or sprouting of grasses had begun, burning did not normally take place, due to increased danger and decreased benefits. On the other hand, an extended, wet spring might seriously reduce the size and effectiveness of areas that could be burned, one reason for the burning of some areas in late fall…

“Sometimes we burned in the fall. It has to be done at the right time because (the fire) might get away. You wait until there’s snow in the bush and it’s kind of wet there. The grass burns real good but it stops when it gets to the bush. Then, in the spring you get better grass,” (Slavey, 79, Hay Lake area).

Fall burning provided a type of insurance against a bad spring or absence from an area to be burned, but it had some important disadvantages. Surrounding vegetation could catch fire much more easily, and, informants claimed, fall burning did not produce as full a cover of spring grass as could spring fires. Fall burning meant most winter forage was removed and that game would necessarily abandon such areas until spring growth emerged. The impression given by the informants was that fall burning was restricted to small areas and ones that were not exploited while on winter trapline.

“Used to be we lived in teepees all year. Moved round a lot. One place in the fall we’d burn, another place in the spring we’d burn that …. Country was a lot more open then and wasn’t so hard to travel. Not like now. You can hardly travel in the bush and it’s not so good for hunting. I haven’t been on trapline in a long time now. So much brush you can hardly get through,” (Cree, 70, Fort Vermilion area)…

Firebrands or simply matches would be used to ignite the dry grass. A light wind, sufficient to carry the fire to a good burn, was desired. Late in the burning period a strong, drying wind meant that the fire might be postponed or set during the evening, when winds lessened. Natural firebreaks or backfires were used if conditions required, though in all cases, the primary control against the spread of fire was the proper judgment of fuel and weather conditions. Because the surrounding margins of meadows are relatively drier and more exposed to repeated fire damage, individual trees and bushes in these zones were often killed over time. These scarred and fire killed trees and brush often caused flare-ups which meant additional fire kills and the gradual advance of grasslands. However, such flare-ups quickly dropped down and went out as they reached the moisture laden trees, shrubs and grasses of the forest.

It was admitted by a few informants that on rare occasions fires did escape. However, those fires which ran into the surrounding forest, as a result of sudden winds, a smoldering log flaming-up a few days later, or simply as a result of poor judgment were less destructive in spring than were summer lightning fires. With the simplest tools, they were also fairly easy to contain. Thus, on the occasions when spring fires went into surrounding vegetation they did little if any damage, since they usually remained on the ground rather than being carried into the canopy, and often burned themselves out, or were put out, in relatively short time.

Slope and daily changes in air currents were used as additional controls in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Mountain meadows were burned in late afternoon, when air currents normally move downhill. In those instances a controlled fire was set at the top or head of the meadow and allowed to burn down slope to the lower, wetter portions.

“We’d always wait until late afternoon and the fire was set at the upper end (of the meadow). It would burn down to the low, damp places where the really wet grasses grow. That’s the way we burned mountain meadows. See, you have to know the wind; you have to know how to use it,” (Cree-Metis, 76, Grande Cache area).

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