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The Many Elements of Traditional Fire Knowledge: Synthesis, Classification, and Aids to Cross-cultural Problem Solving in Fire-dependent Systems Around the World

Mary R. Huffman, The Nature Conservancy


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I examined the hypothesis that traditional social-ecological fire systems around the world include common elements of traditional fire knowledge (TFK). I defined TFK as fire-related knowledge, beliefs, and practices that have been developed and applied on specific landscapes for specific purposes by long time inhabitants. In all, 69 distinct elements of TFK were documented in 35 studies, including accounts from 27 countries on 6 continents. On all 6 continents, 21 elements (30%) were recorded, and 46 elements (67%) were recorded on 4 or more continents. The top 12 most commonly reported elements, which were included in > 50 % of the studies, were fire effects on vegetation; season of the year; fire effects on animals; moisture of live or dead fuels; the onset or end of rainy season, dry season, or timing of rain; burning illegal or regulated by central government; fire intensity, heat output, i.e., hot or cool fire; frequency, return interval, time since fire; fire control; firebreaks, barriers; consequences of not burning; and plant or animal phenology. Traditional fire knowledge was multifaceted: 13 studies included more than 25 elements. Practicing traditional fire management also entails understanding the ways in which multiple elements interact and influence one another. Three classification systems provide insight into TFK systems, including typologies of agro-ecological type, pre- and postindustrial anthropological fire regimes, and viability status. The longevity of traditional fire knowledge and practice faces serious threats at precisely the time when climate change promises disruptions in fire activity that will be problematic for indigenous and nonindigenous societies alike. Central governments tend to adopt the pathological response of command and control during times of fire increase, further constraining traditional fire management. The opposite is needed: to seriously engage traditional practitioners in solving fire problems of global significance.

Key words

ecological anthropology; fire management; indigenous; pyrogeography; traditional ecological knowledge; traditional fire knowledge; wildland fire

Copyright © 2013 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087