An Ozark Fire History

Missouri's natural communities have been shaped by humans and wildland fires for thousands of years. In many ways, the history of fire in Missouri also is a history of human population, culture and migration. Fires caused by natural ignition, like lightning, are rare. Despite as many as 50 to 70 thunderstorm days per year, Conservation Department studies indicate that less than 1 percent of modern day fires are started naturally. Humans have been, and continue to be, the primary cause of most wildland fires in Missouri.In Native American cultures, fire was a tool used to create conditions to benefit farming and hunting. In the distant past, people of the Mississippian culture settled the rich fertile bottom lands in Missouri. These permanent populations may have used wildland fires to clear land to enhance defense of their villages and to improve production of cultivated crops. Fruits, berries and many other natural foods flourish on sites where fires have burned.

Wildfires of direct human causes also may have resulted from wars, hunting techniques or even accidents. But for hundreds, if not thousands, of years the most important reason for deliberately setting fires has been to maintain grasslands by preventing the forest from taking over. Grasslands and savannahs provided food for bison, elk and deer. Even today, fire is used in many parts of the world to promote grassland for domestic cattle.

French Jesuits, such as Father Vivier, were the first to describe the Missouri landscape. In 1750, he writes, " . . . wherein trees are almost as thinly scattered as in our public promenades. This is partly due to the fact that the savages set fire to the prairies toward the end of autumn, when the grass is dry; the fire spreads everywhere and destroys most of the young trees." Later travelers, including Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who traveled through the Ozarks in 1819, described a landscape of prairies, oak savannahs and oak-pine forests shaped by fire.

How can we know, other than through accounts of early explorers in the area, what the long-term relationship of man and fire has been? The story of humans and their use of the land can be deciphered by studying burn scars on living trees or old stumps and snags.

When a low to moderately intense surface fire burns a tree, a portion of the living tissue under the bark, known as the cambium, may be killed by the heat. This injury