Human Fire Interactions Project

Galena, Alaska

Collaborating with tribal council members, agency resource managers, and a 17-person, interdisciplinary academic team (the “Human-Fire Interactions Project”), we examined the following chain of impacts: climate change impacts on patterns and frequency of wildfire, and the effects of changing patterns of wildfire on rural, subsistence livelihoods. As both land and air grow warmer and drier in interior Alaska, fires are more frequent, cover larger areas, and burn deeper into the soil surface in the forests. Wildfire – risks of damage from fire, fire frequency, and the patch size of burn areas – then has an impact on people hunting caribou and moose, fishing for salmon and whitefish, hunting furbearers, and gathering edible berries, amongst other cultural, heritage, and subsistence practices. As part of my PhD research, I contributed a field ecological study of edible berry production – blueberries and lingonberries in the genus Vaccinium – in sites that had burned anywhere from 1-30 years ago, to learn more about food availability; I partnered with a local high-school teacher to conduct interviews with Koyukon Athabaskan elders in five villages along the Yukon River (up- and downriver of Galena); and I reviewed the scientific literature on the effects of fire on 17 species important to subsistence livelihoods. I see the following as examples of successful collaboration and respect: in climate-change workshops we co-hosted, the tribal councils retain the rights to the transcripts of the workshops and therefore the intellectual property; we worked with the Alaska Native Science Center and village schools; and living in Galena during both summers of my research, I was invited to Spirit Camp, in which Koyukon Athabaskan elders teach tribal youth about subsistence skills, stories and knowledge.

Questions we're asking

  1. What are the effects of climate change on wildfires, and then what does a changing wildfire regime mean for subsistence livelihoods?
  2. How can we address the ecosystem aspects of climate change, fire, and vegetation, and the social landscape of cultural value, fire policy, and scales of decision-making from national to local?
  3. What does increasing wildfire mean for rural village residents, from their perspective?

Problems we're solving

Wildfires are increasing in frequency, extent, and damage, and the costs to fight fires are ever rising – even with a “let burn” policy for wilderness fires. Fire is perceived as a threat to the indigenous, Koyukon Athabaskan communities we worked with, and, in the words of an elder in Huslia, promoting fire as being good for the ecosystems, “is the wrong thing to say to the land.” The year 2015 just overtook the 2004 record for largest area burned in a summer fire season: in 2004, an area of 27 million km2 (6.6 million acres, and the size of Vermont) burned. People have a complex relationship with fire and multiple perspectives on it: agency managers promote fire as good for shrub regrowth that provides moose forage, and therefore for hunting; fire provides rural income to Emergency Fire Fighting crews; and yet fire poses great risks with high uncertainty. Wildfire is predicted to increase, at some point beyond the capacity of any federal-government funding. As fire patch-sizes increase (the site of a fire being a “patch”), people’s ability to hunt or gather a variety of different species that use different habitats is diminished.

Project participants (alphabetical order) in the “Human-Fire Interactions Project” supported by the National Science Foundation: M. Calef; F.S. Chapin, III; L. DeWilde; N.L. Fresco; H.P. Huntington; O. Huntington; G.P. Kofinas; A.L. Lovecraft; A.D. McGuire; D.C. Natcher; J. L. Nelson; M.D. Robards; T.S. Rupp; E.S. Zavaleta.

Photo credit: JL Nelson 2004, Yukon River, Galena, Alaska.