Fire on the Early Western Landscape: An Annotated Record of Wildland Fires 1776-1990

George E. Gruell – Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station USDA Forest Service

Abstract

Scientific and historical literature was searched for documented accounts of early fires in the ‘”interior West”-Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and eastern Oregon. One hundred and forty-five accounts of fires by 44 observers were found.
The majority of accounts described fires in progress. A smaller proportion referred to burned areas that were encountered; a few simply described regional fire occurrence based on the journalists’ observations.
Indians were identified as the primary ignition source over wide areas at lower and middle elevations. Some journalists noted that fire enhanced grasses and inhibited growth of woody plants. The historical record, and fire history based on analysis of fire scars demonstrate that fire was a major perturbation in the interior West. Such knowledge can help resource managers understand subsequent vegetative changes, and can enable them to use prescribed fires intelligently.

Introduction

Various researchers in western Norch America have concluded that wildfire was a major perturbation before the turn of the century (Stewart 1951, Pyne 1982). This knowledge is important for managing forest and rangelands, for interpreting succes-sional patterns of early-day vegetation, for understanding successional changes that have taken place in modern times, and ultimately for managing forests and rangelands. Vegetational changes, after all, have major implications for management of wildlife, timber, and other resources.

Researchers in various disciplines have cited historical literature that describes early fires in the interior West. Only a few, however, have used these sources to in-terpret fire’s past role in various ecosystems (Moore 1972, Shinn 1980, Barrett 1981). These previous studies provide insight on early fire occurrence in parts of the interior · West, but over large areas there was little knowledge of historical fire occurrence. T herefore, a broader search of western literature prior to 1900 was conducted. This paper summarizes and interprets accounts of fire pertaining ro a large area of the interior West, including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and eastern Oregon.

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