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4,000-year study supports use of prescribed burns in Southern Appalachians
Date:4/6/2010

DURHAM, N.C. A new study reconstructing thousands of years of fire history in the southern Appalachians supports the use of prescribed fire, or controlled burns, as a tool to reduce the risk of wildfires, restore and maintain forest health and protect rare ecological communities in the region's forests.

Duke University researchers used radiocarbon analysis of 82 soil charcoal samples dating from 1977 to more than 4,000 years ago to reconstruct the fire history of a 25-acre site in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. Their study, the first of its kind, appears on the cover of the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecology, published March 31.

"These are the first hard data showing that fires have occurred relatively frequently over much of the last 4,000 years and have played an important role in the health, composition and structure of southern Appalachian forest ecosystems," said Norman L. Christensen Jr., professor of ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "Prior to this study, people presumed fire had long played an important role, but tree rings were the only available tool to study it, and they allowed us to look back only a few hundred years."

Analysis of soil charcoal samples demonstrated that fires became more frequent about 1,000 years ago. This coincides with the appearance of Mississippian Tradition Native Americans, who used fire to clear underbrush and improve habitat for hunting, Christensen said.

Fires became less frequent at the site about 250 years ago, following the demise of the Mississippian people and the arrival of European settlers, whose preferred tools for clearing land were the axe and saw, rather than the use of fire. Active fire suppression policies and increased landscape fragmentation during the last 75 years have further reduced fire frequency in the region, a trend reflected in the analysis of samples from the study site.

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Contact: Tim Lucas
tdlucas@duke.edu
919-613-8084
Duke University
Source:Eurekalert

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