Appalachian Forest Fire History Studied

DURHAM, N.C., April 6 (UPI) — A Duke University study reconstructing thousands of years of fire history in the southern Appalachians supports the use of controlled burns.

Professor Norman Christensen Jr. and his team said their study, the first of its kind, involved radiocarbon analysis of 82 soil charcoal samples dating from 1977 to more than 4,000 years ago. The samples were used to reconstruct the fire history of a 25-acre site in western North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.


“These are the first hard data showing that fires have occurred relatively frequently over much of the last 4,000 years and have played an important role in the health, composition and structure of southern Appalachian forest ecosystems,” Christensen said.

Analysis of the charcoal samples demonstrated fires became more frequent about 1,000 years ago. That coincides with the appearance of Mississippian Tradition Indians, who used fire to clear underbrush and improve habitat for hunting, Christensen said. Fires became less frequent at the site about 250 years ago with the arrival of European settlers, whose preferred tools for clearing land were the axe and saw, rather than the use of fire.

Aside from historic and scientific interest, knowing more about presettlement fire regimes may help forest managers understand the likely responses of species to the increased use of prescribed fire for understory fuel management, Christensen said.

The study appears in the journal Ecology.

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