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USU Ecology Center speaker seeks to improve wildfire management

Smoke rises from a forest.

In the face of increasing wildfire severity across the US, one researcher speaking at USU this week hopes to bring back indigenous wildfire practices to current US wildfire management strategies that work to suppress fire.

Current wildfire management practices miss the importance of fire on the landscape, said Christopher Roos, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University. He researches the interaction between society, climate and wildfire.

“Smokey Bear made us believe that one of our options was living without wildfire. And, frankly, that's the only thing that is not an option for us...and we struggle, I think, partly because in Western society, we don't have a place for wildfire as anything other than a hazard,” Roos said.

Roos’s work with the Jemez Pueblo and White Mountain Apache tribes shows that our current wildfire management is still a far cry from the tailored fire practices these and other tribes used in the past. Fortunately, he said management agencies are beginning to acknowledge the importance of wildfire, but they don’t often get the chance to use wildfire as a landscape management tool. When they do, they often concentrate their efforts with large scale burns.

“When they can get a project going, they want to burn as many acres as they can. And that's not of course, what fires were like in the past. One of the biggest contrasts I think is that by and large most of the type of fire management done by indigenous people involved very small patches, maybe between one and ten hectares,” Roos explained.

Roos said we need to think about fire management year-round, even when fires aren’t burning, and that we need to rely on indigenous voices for effective wildfire management going forward.

“Have them at the meeting table every day, talking about projects and plans and bringing tribal values to those discussions, I think would go a long way to restoring some element of sovereignty, supporting communities that have not been supported well for so long, and getting good fire and forest management back out there where it needs to be,” Roos said.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.