An Ozark Fire History

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Acquisition of horses gradually gave this tribe greater mobility to hunt, exploit and influence (by fire) a large area. Then, diseases introduced by Europeans decimated many Native American tribes and probably greatly influenced the frequency of fire in the Ozarks and in all of North America. Outbreaks of diseases in 1698, 1747 and 1751, for example, killed 80 percent of the Quapaw people southeast of the Ozarks.

Migrations of tribes pushed westward by Euro-American settlement of the eastern United States coincided with an increase once again in fire frequency between 1780 and 1820. Delaware, Shawnee, Cherokee and other tribes passed through Missouri during this period.

By the 1820s and 1830s, Euro-American settlers spreading westward had displaced most of the Native American population. Exponential increases in human population explain the increase in fire frequency from 1810 to 1850. The relatively high density of settlement was responsible for widespread burning in the rugged terrain of the Ozarks during this period.

Settlement also brought railways and a more modern overland road system in the late 19th century. Transition to a regional economy from the historically local form of commerce in the Ozarks brought about yet another chapter in fire history. Timber became increasingly valuable and, in 40 years or so, loggers had harvested most of the shortleaf pine and much of the better quality hardwood in the region.

The slash left from logging operations fueled major wildfires ignited by farmers trying to convert forest into pasture. Not only were human lives threatened and homes destroyed by the rampant wildfires, but frequent burns significantly decreased the value of the remaining timber. When Missourians finally realized this method of resource exploitation degraded the value of remaining forest, the cycle of how they used fire changed.

Timber, once worth little to the settlers, became quite valuable. Population density made wildland fires a serious hazard to life and property. In the late 1930s, the Conservation Department, U.S. Forest Service and rural fire protection organizations developed successful fire suppression programs to protect lives, timber, homes, buildings and other rural improvements.

Although there are still some localities in Missouri where frequent burns take place, the role that wildland fire plays in our ecosystems and natural communities has been substantially reduced. Today, prescribed fire (fire with a defined purpose) is being introduced into some of our wildlands to foster wildlife habitat, plant diversity, prairie restoration and timber production.

The judicious use of prescribed fire and the suppression of wildfires should result in a natural heritage as diverse in ecology and beauty as what the first explorers described.

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