Historic Fire Regimes

Historic fire regimes cannot be statistically or scientifically proven nor can they be generalized across the United States. The focus area of this paper is the tallgrass prairies, specifically the eastern wedge, known as the Prairie Peninsula, which includes The Driftless Area. Some believe the tallgrass prairies were created by drought while others believe it was fire. A fire regime includes fire pattern, frequency, origin, intensity, and impact; these are highly specific to a site sometimes to a microsite. Historical accounts of full fire regimes are virtually nonexistent. Historical fire timing is vaguely known and whether lightning or Native Americans were the source of ignition is debated. Fire frequencies are stated with confidence yet cannot be substantiated. Even though literature has accounts of annual fires, there is no indication the entire area (or the same area) was burned every year. Fire is local and cannot be broadly  interpreted across regions, climate, and topography. Throughout history, fire timing and mode has changed, giving rise to researchers categorizing historical fire periods but this has not resolved the controversies.  Indirect evidence, topographical influences, and fire databases are the best we have for ascertaining fire frequencies. Because no single method exists for accurately determining fire frequencies, maps have been created using several techniques. These are helpful but the ranges of fire frequency in The Driftless Area cannot be narrowed beyond 4-35 years. No area of historical fire regimes are untouched by controversy!

Origins of the Prairie

Did the prairies form by climate or fire? This question has been debated, discussed, and researched for years without agreement among scholars. A brief, general history of this merits discussion before exploring historic fire regimes.

There is a general understanding among ecologists that climate and drought determined the soil and vegetation of the grasslands in the prairie peninsula (Borchert 1950, Sims and Risser 2000, Axelrod 1985, Whitney 1993:47). Weather patterns, such as consecutive drought years, during this time generated strong westerly circulation, pushing the Great Plains eastward through the lower Great Lakes region creating a wedge-shaped extension (Borchert 1950, Gleason 1922, 1909, Stuckey 1981). The wedge-shaped area became known as the Prairie Peninsula, which includes The Driftless Area. Edgar Nelson Transeau named it in 1905, mapped it, and provided climatic characteristics (Stuckey 1981). Transeau (1935), in his seminal paper provides an inventory of logical facts to explain this phenomenon.

In 1950, Borchert delineated 5 major regions based on climate. One map shows the climate in 1950, the other depicts it from pre-historic time, 12,000 years ago, illustrating the changes.

Prehistoric climate regions
Five climatic regions

Prehistoric climate regions, 12,000 years ago

Five climatic regions

It is not necessary to make fire the sole originator of the North American grasslands.

Stephen Pyne

Those favoring the idea that fire was the dominating factor cite the change from cooler, moister air at the end of the Little Ice Age, around 1870, stating this change favored woody encroachment into the prairies (Anderson 2006). The eastern section of the prairie peninsula has a history of fluctuating between grasslands and woods (Davis 1977). This fluctuation from 18,000 years ago to 200 years ago is shown by paleovegetation maps created by Delcourt and Delcourt (Anderson 1990:12, 1983, Curtis and McIntosh 1951). 

Contrary to this, some early scholars and pioneers “believed the prairies were manmade” and resulted from frequent fires by Native Americans (Borchert 1950, Sauer 1950). One reason provided is the lack of endemic or native flora; this suggests there was not a long evolutionary history for the existing plants (Wells 1970:219, Grimm 1983). Curtis (1959) cites first-hand accounts of fires but first-hand accounts are fraught with possible exaggerations because of their awe-inspiring nature (Whitney 1993:11). They can also be limited in scope as many travelers didn’t stray far from their travel routes (Lorimer 2001). These anecdotes only indicate fire occurrences in that particular place at that particular time rather than ongoing, repetitive occurrences covering large areas. 

The importance of fire has “waxed and waned in association with changes in climate and paleoatmospheric conditions”(Pausas and Keeley 2009). While fire may have been one factor advancing the prairie eastward before the arrival of the white man, “there is no reason for elevating it above other elements in the complex which were also influenced by the climate”(Borchert 1950). This is echoed by Stephen Pyne (1986), “it is not necessary to make fire the sole originator of the North American grasslands” and Anthony Davis (1977) who said there is “no reason to isolate fire from climate.” Fire as the sole creator of The Driftless Area prairies seems illogical because the Native Americans in southwest Wisconsin would have needed to change their practices and no major changes were documented since 1400 (Cottam 1949). It’s also unlikely that large areas burned in The Driftless Area of the prairie peninsula due to its topography and spring creeks but it is probable in the Flint Hills of Kansas or the more level areas of southern Wisconsin (Davis 1977).

No definite answer exists. Using common sense, we know flammable vegetation needed to exist for fire to be considered as the creator. Maintenance of the grasslands was probably a combination of drought and fire (Anderson 1983). 

Paleovegetation maps for eastern North America


Fire regime is the pattern, frequency, origins, intensity and impact of a fire. “Fire regime refers to the ‘nature of fires occurring over an extended period of time’” (Morgan et al. 2001). The regimes can be decided by natural or anthropogenic occurrences; they are often highly specific and depend upon microsites.

Fire timing refers to the time of the year the burn occurred.


Fire frequency (AKA fire interval, fire rotation) is the average number of years between burns (Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre 2003). Fire frequency affects species life cycles, plant structure and composition, and fuel accumulation (Morgan et al. 2001). 

Fire mode is the method used to ignite the fire.

Historical timing of fires

Fire is distinctly local; not only in frequencies but in timing and mode. Historical accounts varied by region, are vague, and only broadly describe the season of burning (Knapp et al. 2009:6, Wade et al. 2000: 87, Pyne, 1982:79).

One purpose of understanding historic fire timing is to mimic it. This replication is assumed to have the best outcome for sustaining our ecosystems. “The fact that a certain pattern of fire prevailed in presettlement times does not guarantee that it will have the same effects in today’s fragmented landscape” with the invasive plants, changed moisture patterns, and climate change (Ladd 2014). 

We only generally know the season of fires. Changes to these occurred and continue occurring. Native Americans and settlers shifted the timing to suit their needs. Dormant-season burns are the most prominent today, but were not in the presettlement landscape (Ladd 2014).

Below is a list of fire timing located in the literature:

  • 1819 Western PA – end of the Indian summer, October (Wade et al. 2000: 87)
  • 1805 Kentucky – March or April (Wade et al. 2000: 87)
  • 1819 Missouri – fall (Wade et al. 2000: 87)
  • Illinois – Indian summer – late Oct to early Nov (Wade et al. 2000: 87)
  • Columbia County, WI – burning occurred in the Indian summers. (Curtis 1959 – p297)
  • Florida – February thru March (Frost 1998)
  • Southern Appalachians – May (Frost 1998)
  • Nebraska – midsummer but lightning could cause them any time between March and November (Frost 1998). 66% between July-August (Bragg 1995)
  • Southwest – spring with lightning igniting in the summer (Frost 1998)
  • Southeastern Arizona – early- or mid-growing season (Frost 1998)
  • Southwestern New Mexico – throughout the growing season (Frost 1998)
  • West – August and September (Frost 1998)
  • In the Great Plains, 75% of the fires were in July and August. (Bragg 1999)
  • In the Dakotas 70% of the landscape fire was by lightning in July and August; between 1630-1920, the Native Americans had shifted this to April and October (Frost 1998).

Historical Modes of Fire

Fire was started for many reasons and by a variety of methods, some natural, some anthropogenic. According to Pyne (1982:57), by 1837 many fires were set by locomotives. In 1880, a list of 9 major causes of fire were compiled. These included burning pastures for livestock feed; burning for hunting purposes; fire from folks passing through the area; burning to expose a rock outcrop; out of control charcoal burners; berry producers; squatters; arsonists; and evildoers wanting to cover their activities (Pyne 1982).

Notice that lightning fires are not in this top 10 list even though records show lightning starts more than 6,000 fires each year in the United States (Smith 2000:2). Fire starting methods must be kept in context with the location because fire is distinctly local.

Lightning fires were common in western and southeastern parts of the United States (Pyne 1982, 2015). They are rare in Northeast regions because thunderstorms were accompanied by rain and occurred when vegetation was green (Wade et al. 2000: 61, Pyne 1982:46, Guyette et al. 2006, Scott et al. 2014:30, Anderson 2006, Lorimer 2001, Dorney 1981, Whitney 1993:108, Curtis 1959). Gleason (1913) found “no records of prairie fire produced by lightning” in the Middle West.

 The sweeping generalizations of Native American fire and lightning-caused fire have caused great misunderstanding about historic burning. Fires are specific to a region, its climate, and its indigenous tribes. Dorney and Dorney (1989) note a number of researchers who presume the impact of Indian fire across the United States was substantial but their “burning varied drastically” and in areas where lightning fires were common, the Native American burns had little influence on the landscape (Frost 1998).  Does this mean Indian burns had more impact in areas where lightning was rare? Those specifically studying the northeastern part did not think so (Russell 1983, Barrett et al. 2005) and “found no strong evidence that Native Americans burned large areas in the Northeast” (Wade et al. 2009:61) nor is there “solid evidence to suggest that the same sites were repeatedly subjected to fires on an annual or biannual basis” (Whitney 1993:115). They must have had great impact on localized sections of a region; yet there is no consensus in the ecological community (Frost 1998). 

Pine Gulch Fire, Wyoming hotshots.jpg

Source: Pine Gulch Fire, Wyoming HotShots

The Pine Gulch fire was started by a lightning strike and first reported on July 31, 2020 and quickly grew, resulting in the fire being named the largest wildfire in Colorado history.

Native Americans had many uses for fire (Smith 2000:2) but we have few details on frequency and timing even with the large amount of completed anthropological research (Thorpe and Stanley 2011, Conedera et al. 2009, Brown and Smith, 61, Clark and Royall 1996, Williams 2000, Whitney 1994). Ethnohistorians do not agree about how often or how widespread Native Americans burned between 1000-1800 (Dickmann and Cleland 2016, Pyne 1982, Russell 1983). One would be hard pressed to believe the Indians did not use fire to their advantage (Williams 2003) but what we know of Indian burning is via anecdotal accounts (Williams 2000). In Massachusetts first-hand accounts state oak forests were burned twice a year. This is improbable because there would not be enough fuel to sustain burns of that frequency across the whole forest. Rather, what could have happened is Indians burned in different locations within these forests (Russell 1983). This is a good illustration of how sightings can be misinterpreted. 

The Driftless Area and the northeastern portion of the United States had very different fire histories than other regions of America. Wisconsin tribes were mostly nomadic; their fire hunting moved with the herds and was not confined to limited areas of repeated fire (Pyne 1986). Curtis (1959:462) believed the nomadic hunting tribes were “an important if not the sole cause of the fires” however, “historical accounts of Indian fires in Wisconsin are few” (Dorney and Dorney 1989).  Indians probably did increase the use of fire over the rare frequency of lightning fires (Russell 1983). Yet most known regular fires were associated with agricultural tribes such as Potawatomi and Winnebago (Dorney and Dorney 1989, Kline and Cottom 1979). The nomadic nature of the Dakota Sioux in The Driftless Area would not have created fires burning over the same locations repeatedly.

Historical Periods

Fire regimes are dynamic. As early as the 1700s, Europeans brought a number of changes (Dickmann and Cleland 2016, Morgan et al. 2001, Lorimer 2001). Along with introduction of firearms and warfare, which changed the settlement patterns and destroyed some Native American societies, they logged and cultivated the land. Changes have occurred and continue occurring since the presettlement period; we have non-native plants, fragmentation, pollution, extinctions. These change the effects of fire. The changing climate and severe disturbances, which are increasing, must be factored in as well.

Man has changed how fire should be used (Morgan et al. 2001) essentially replacing a “whole set of fire practices with another set” (Pyne 1986). This replacement was so thorough that “a fire burning today – even one intended to imitate historic processes – is a new kind of fire, distinct from those of the past” (Pyne 1986). During the European settlement-exploitation period, the “indiscriminate burning by prospectors and land speculators”(Baker 1992) and settlers creating agricultural fields “cannot necessarily be accepted as representative of a long-term baseline value” (Lorimer 2001).

Dickmann and Cleland (2016) recognized fire regimes change through time based on climate and culture. They recognized four distinct time periods. Not only can we not generalize fire regimes across the country, we cannot generalize them beyond the time period in which they occurred (Morgan et al. 2001). I would add a fifth time period of 1960-present since fire is no longer generally excluded.

  • AD ~1000-1500: pre-Columbian
  • AD 1500-1800: immediate-post Columbian
  • AD 1800-1920: European settlement-exploitation
  • AD 1920 – present: fire-exclusion period

Although we have little accurate idea of what the fire frequencies were in any of these time periods, but they do illustrate changes that have occurred over time. And it begs the question: Do they have any relevance to present day?

The fire regimes before 1500 have had the most influence on North American ecosystems as this was the time before the European invasion of America. Few data is available from that era; most information is anecdotal. (Lyon et al. 2000: 3; Brown 2000: 4)

Fire Frequency

Historical fire frequency cannot be generalized across the United States (Pyne, 1982: 26, Lorimer 2001, Guyette et al. 2006). Each region and often microsites within those regions have very different fire regimes because areas are influenced by temperature, human population density, precipitation, soils, slope and aspect, and topography (Guyette et al. 2006, Grant, 2009, Whitney 1994:2). Southern regions of America burned more frequently than northern regions (Guyette et al. 2012, Wade et al. 2009:61) and western regions burned more than eastern areas (Pyne 1982). We can narrow this further by stating that fire in the northern part of Wisconsin was vastly different than in the southern portion. Guyette and others (2006) provide a more specific example showing spatial burning variation for 40 sites in Eastern North America; some were burned every 2-3 years while sites less than 24 miles apart burned in intervals of 20 years or more. Previous literature show fire return intervals for prairies and sedge meadows in the Great Lakes Region range from 1-5 years but nothing can be scientifically confirmed; these are estimates based on anecdotes (Dickmann and Cleland 2016, Grimm 1984, Leitner et al. 1991, Curtis 1959, Collins 1990). 

prescribed fire

The size of the study area and its microclimates are important when discussing fire frequencies. Generally speaking, the larger the area, the more fires might occur. This would not mean the entire area was burned with each fire but rather a fire could be somewhere within this every year. A classic example comes from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Between the years of 1542-1971 in an approximate 830-square-mile area, one portion had 6-year fire return intervals while another had 65-year fire return intervals.

Historic burns were very patchy. Bison and other large herbivores changed the landscape and the way fire moved across it. Their wallows and grazing habits created areas that did not burn, fashioning “a patchwork of burned and unburned areas” (Baack 2011). This irregular patterning is important for ecosystem diversity because it creates a mosaic of possible habitats. In The Driftless Area our mosaics are created by the intertwining of prairies and forests with no single factor having more influence than another (Davis 1977, Anderson 1983).

No historical fire regime can be statistically or scientifically proven and overestimations of fire frequencies are common (Morgan et al. 2001, New 2014). Information is fraught with inaccuracies, lacks details, lacks multi-century data; variables such as infrequently occurring fires and decades of fire suppression also skew the results (Gibson 1988, Guyette et al. 2012). Experiments have not been successful because manipulating fire regimes beyond simple fire exclusion are notoriously difficult to execute (Scott et al. 2014:128). The information available comes from indirect evidence, topographical influences, and database information (Lorimer 2001, Scott et al. 2014:128, Davis 1977).

The larger the study area, the more fire it may have had. This doesn’t mean the entire area was burned but rather that fire touched somewhere within the boundaries every year.

Fire-sensitive Fauna and Fire Frequency

Based on the time it takes trees to invade prairies, Hulbert (1986) believes fires “must have occurred more than once a decade, perhaps several times a decade.”

A consideration of fire-sensitive fauna has been explored as a way to ascertain historical fire frequencies. There are a number of terrestrial land snails very sensitive to a burn which “casts doubt on the wide held belief that North American grasslands should be burned at 2-6 year intervals. Rather this data support the contention that presettlement return intervals ranged between 20-30 years” (Nekola 2002). It would seem unlikely that all areas of the grasslands in any region burned 100% every year. There had to be unburned areas that “provided refugia for fire sensitive insects” (Anderson 2006). If this were not the case, we would have none of these fauna present today.


Fire Adapted not Fire Dependent Species

Fire adapted is the more accurate term for the flora found in the Driftless Area. Fire dependency is an evolutionary trait and not all flora benefitting from fire should be called fire dependent. Most fire-dependent flora is found in the southeastern coastal plains and are adapted because of frequent, almost annual, lightning fires. “The remarkable adaptations of extreme frequent-fire species like longleaf pine and Venus’s flytrap are unlikely to have appeared in the 10,000 years since the end of the Wisconsin glaciation, and may well have taken hundreds of thousands of years to evolve during previous interglacial periods” (Frost 1998). Likewise with rare species, “it seems unlikely that any rare species in the U.S. were dependent upon Native American burning” but would have evolved under lightning fires (Frost 1998).

Influence of Topography

Topography plays a key role in the spread of fire and its frequency (Grimm 1983, Lorimer 2001, Anderson 2006). “Topographic roughness is by far one of the most consistent and important variables affecting the frequency of fire” (Guyette et al. 2006). Historically, there would be fewer fires in rough terrain as these are inversely correlated (Guyette et al. 2002, Guyette et al. 2006, Stewart 1951, Anderson 1990:14, Gleason 1913, 1922, Wells, 1970, Grimm 1984).

Short fire intervals (1-3 years) in rough terrain didn’t happen until human populations increased after more European settlers arrived after 1875. It was impossible to maintain a less-than-3-year frequency (Guyette et al. 2006). One way to puzzle out possible scenarios is to consider a low-intensity surface fire moving along until it reached a steep, rocky hillside of the Driftless Area or one of the many creeks and rivers, or diminishing at the edge of numerous rocky bluffs. The annual fires discussed by Curtis (1971) and Risser et al. (1981) were in level or slightly rolling areas and west of waterways (Anderson 2006, Dickmann and Cleland 2016, Grimm 1983, Leitner et al. 1991) and probably didn’t cover the same area year after year. Dickmann and Cleland (2016) believe these burns occurred between the years of 1000-1800.

Waterways were instrumental in determining burn patterns (Grimm 1983). Fire normally advanced from west to east leaving vegetation on the east side sheltered from the fire and burned less frequently (Anderson 1983, 1998, 2006, Gleason 1922, 1913, Davis 1977). In Wisconsin, vegetation and landscape differed on the east side and the west side of the Pecatonica River (Leitner et al. 1991). The numbers of creeks, streams, and river would influence the fire.

Driftless Area topography, Photo by Cynthya Porter www.visitwinona.com

It’s easy to see from this aerial view of the Driftless Area how frequent or annual fires would be near impossible. There would not have been enough human power to keep them lit as they rolled up and down the terrain and across the numerous wetlands, streams, rivers, and other waterways. 

Photo by Cynthya Porter www.visitwinona.com

Database Information

Most fire history database information of grasslands, shrublands, and woodlands comes from anecdotes or extrapolation of a person’s observations, tree scars. and charcoal sediment. The information is generally from short periods of time and small geographic areas (Wade et al. 2000: 86, Gleason 1909, Scott et al. 2014:172, Morgan et al. 2001).

Models and mapping usually come from fire databases. Models allow for estimating fire regimes when no on-site fire history is available (Guyette et al. 2006). They use data of small relatively well-known geographic areas and apply it broadly to similar areas (Morgan et al. 2001). Site-specific fire history may never be known but modeling is one way to ascertain a rough determination (Guyette et al. 2012).



Mapping is a technique used to pictorially show fire frequencies and how they differ across the United States. There is no single accurate method for determining historical fire frequencies. Estimations become more accurate if more than one method of ascertaining them is used (Dickmann and Cleland 2016, Whitney 1993:37). “Each method produces unique information” (Lorimer 2001) and not all methods can be used in every region because records are lacking or testing sites aren’t available.

In an attempt to map fire frequencies across the United States, various data and combinations of data have been used to create the following maps.

These maps portray fire frequencies in The Driftless Area with quite different ranges. The Presettlement Fire Frequency shows this area to have a 4-12 year fire intervals. The PC2FM map shows 14-18 year intervals. The Historic Natural Fire map is much less refined and gives a 0-35 year interval. 

Presettlement Fire Frequency Regimes Map (1565-1890)

Frost compiled numbers from fire history studies and historical records then overlaid them with a map of land surface forms. He coded each fire regime based on “periodicity, season of burn, frequency, and ecological fire effects”(Frost 1998). For a fire frequency to be applied to the map at least 10% of the landscape was evaluated to have been burned; in the tallgrass prairie area, most likely 50-90% of the landscape was burned (Frost 1998). This map represents fire frequencies between 1565 and 1890.

Presettlement Fire Frequency Regimes Map 1565-1890

Physical Chemistry Fire Frequency Model (PC2FM) Map (1650-1850)

This empirical map was “developed from theories and data in physical chemistry, ecosystem ecology, and climatology” along with tree-ring scars, charcoal data, and expert estimates (Guyette et al. 2012). Because climatic effects are strong drivers of fire frequency, this mapping model was developed to quantify the role of climate in ecosystems where no data exist. Testing of this model shows it accurately demonstrates climates effect on fire (Guyette et al. 2012). This map represents fire frequencies between 1650 and 1850. 

Physical Chemistry Fire Frequency Model (PC2FM) 1650-1850

Historic Natural Fire Regimes Map (pre-1900)

The map was created by integrating 10 original datasets and expert opinion of 4 maps (Potential Natural Vegetation (PNV), Historical Natural Fire Regimes, Current Cover Types, and Fire Regime Current Condition Classes) which are overlaid to create the final one. Each one of these maps is briefly discussed below. The map reflects “typical fire frequencies that evolved in the absence of fire suppression” (Schmidt et al. 2002). The authors make management suggestions based on this map and also readily admit the layers of this map were not tested for accuracy, the expert opinion was subjective, and probably cannot be replicated (Schmidt et al. 2002). This is a rule-based map where experts assign a fire regime code to GIS based on vegetation and ecoregions and not actual fire history (Morgan et al. 2001). This map represents fire frequencies before 1900. 

Historic Natural Fire Regimes Map pre-1900

Some Examples of Fire Frequency from the Literature

Across the United States, fire frequencies differ. Below are some examples from the literature of historical fire frequencies. The following intervals are undocumented, unsubstantiated best-guess estimates of what is thought to have been historical fire frequencies in various parts of the United States. Most of them are unable to provide evidence about the size of the area burned, the fire intensity, soil moisture, or the plant community; some provide a general idea of the topography. These random fire frequency numbers would be more ecologically meaningful if that information were provided (Dickmann and Cleland 2016). These cannot be applied as guidelines for burning our small fragments as these burns could have happened at these intervals but not in the same place each time. 

  • In southern Wisconsin, fire returns were 16 years on the west side and 112 years on the east side. (Leitner et al. 1991, Dorney 1981)
  • 5 sites in Wisconsin forest prairie transition had mean interval of 5 years and a range of 3-8 years and more. (Guyette et al. 2006)
  • Cadiz woodlands west of the Pecatonica had fire intervals of 16 years (Leitner et al. 1991)
  • In Missouri, fires occurred every 3.2 years prior to 1870; there is no mention of a more precise location. After 1870, every 22 years. In the Mark Twain National Forest, fire was 4.3 year average between 1710-1810; after 1810 fire occurred every 6.4 years. (Wade et al. 2000:86)
  • In a moderately rough terrain in the Ozarks (Missouri), fire intervals were 10 years. (Guyette et al. 2006)
  • Konza Prairie in Kansas is hypothesized to have been burned 3-5yr (Collins 2000 – citing Wright and Bailey)
  • North Dakota and South Dakota fire history was roughly every 5-6 years, but this depended on climate and geography. (Grant, 2009 – cited 3 others)
  • In a forested area in the Ozarks, one study reported a fire return interval of 2.8 years during 1740 to 1850 (Wade et al. 2000:61)
  • Fires in North Carolina ranged from 4-25 years (Frost 1998)
  • A savanna in Kenosha, WI had fire scars showing 7 year burn intervals. (Guyette et al. 2006)
  • Historical fire regime timing: In the eastern U.S. mixed oak forest: 3-13 years; Great Lakes & Atlantic regions: 35-200 years (Knapp et al. 2009:48)
  • Post-settlement fire frequency in oak-hickory and oak-pine was 7-30 years (Lorimer 2001)
  • The interval between fires is shorter for wet sites (2-3 years) and longer for drier sites (6-8 yr) (Smith et al. 2010:139)
  • 5 to 10 year fire return interval on level ground and something more along the lines of a 20 to 30 year fire return interval on topography dissected by breaks and along moisture-laden floodplains. (Holdstock no date)
  • 1-25 year fire return of low intensity surface fires of prairies of U.S. (Scott et al. 2014:30)
  • Historical fire intervals averaged 3-7 years for eastern pine forests. (Knapp et al. 2010:54)
  • Gibson (1988) shows estimates vary with authors. Fire frequencies “in the prairies” were 5-10 years; every 6 years; and 2 to 5 times in 10 years. There is nothing about where these prairies were located.
  • North American Prairie may have burned as often as every 5 or as infrequently as every 30 yr. (Sims and Risser 2000)
  • In the Middle West “prairie fires were set annually by the Indians in the autumn months” (Gleason 1922). Gleason does not quantify what area the Middle West covers. He does not substantiate this claim nor does he specifically state that the fire was set on the same piece of land.
  • Dickmann and Cleland (2016) believe that grassland fire frequencies were in the range of 5-25 years and savannas were 5-15 year intervals.


Fire seems to have an inordinately important role in our ecosystems. Its influence is placed above other factors influencing these systems – climate, grazing, topography (Collins & Wallace 1990:17). Assuming that presettlement fire was the most important or solely critical cannot be made (Collins & Wallace 1990 18). “We do not simulate other factors that have changed – extirpated plants and animals, Indian hunting, and Pleistocene glaciers. Why select Indian fire?” (Lorimer 2001)

Fire regimes have changed drastically in the last hundred years, ebbing and floing, expanding and contracting as the people of the region saw best for their purposes (Lorimer 2001, Pausas and Keeley 2009).

Land managers and restoration practitioners debate the value and appropriateness of restoring historical fire regimes (Scott et al. 2014:172). It is assumed that restoring fire regimes to presettlement times would stabilize ecosystems, making management effort unnecessary. History did not support this(Pyne 2015:57, 200, Guyette et al. 2012). Many other variables have changed – invasive species, pollution, crop agriculture, fragmentation, social goals, land use. These changes are not easily reversed. In nature, one cannot simply put return something to it’s original state because “restoring that something would alter the dynamics of everything else” (Pyne 2015:46). The historical fire regime, if known, is impossible to restore (Conedera et al. 2009, Guyette et al. 2012, Morgan et al. 2001).

Humans have and continue to have a “disproportionate influence on community structure” (Guyette et al. 2006). Decisions and management tactics “may be determined more by societal values and management budgets than by scientific argument” Lorimer 2001).


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