Burning issues

Thom Alcoze
University of North Texas alumnus and professor of forestry at Arizona State University
Arizona's burned trees
Land devastated by forest fire in northern Arizona.
Thursday, May 20, 2004

Forestry professor Thom Alcoze gathers his students in the Arizona wilderness.Smoke rises in the crisp air while the sun sets over the mountains.

Alcoze starts a fire. It grows brighter as the sun fades. This is his classroom.Fire is his focus.

The Northern Arizona University faculty member uses his native Cherokee traditionsto inform students about modern forestry techniques and forest fires. His researchfocuses on traditional Native American ecological knowledge for land restorationpractices.

"All life comes from fire," he says. "The first fire is thesun giving life to the earth."

First, sunlight energizes a tree, then humans cut the tree down, burn it andrelease the power of the sun once again, he says. This is the second fire.

"Call it photosynthesis. Call it solar radiation, if you like. It'sall about life-giving energy," he says.

Full circle

Alcoze says he received his first real taste of research when he was earning his master's degree from North Texas State University in Denton, now the University of North Texas. He worked in the laboratory of Dr. Earl Zimmerman, the current chairman of the university's Department of Biological Sciences.

Zimmerman says he that when he saw Alcoze's enthusiasm and commitment, "I knew he would do well wherever his research took him."

Alcoze went on to earn a doctoral degree from Michigan State University. Now the path from North Texas to his doctoral work and his study of Native Americanland practices has brought him full circle

Alcoze reunited with Zimmerman on the North Texas campus in 1998. It was the first time professor and student had seen each other in more than 25 years.

After sharing their scientific research with each other, they decided to combine their expertise and collaborate on an ecological experiment involving fire.

Zimmerman's research used technology to determine the burn path of a fire, and Alcoze contributed his knowledge of historical Native American land management practices. Tribes have used seasonal burning techniques for hundreds of years to enrich the soil and grow plants with high nutrient value, Alcoze says.

By employing native land-management techniques and using landscape imagery from satellites, the scientists are seeking to prevent the accidental spread of fire on reservations and elsewhere.

Zimmerman says he uses a geographical information system, or GIS, to create a fire model, which he says is like a dress rehearsal for a real fire.

"A GIS is nothing more than a computer package that overlays multiple layersof information to build a pattern," he says.

He creates a model by programming various conditions — such as vegetation types, wind velocity and direction, geological strata, altitude, fire ignition points and human population sites — onto the virtual GIS landscape to determine the most likely path a fire will take. If the fire's path is known in advance, residents in its way can be alerted to the impending threat,he says.

Fire on the mountain

To determine the success of the computer fire model, Zimmerman needed to overlap the virtual world of the model with a real-life burn.

He received an opportunity to do so in the summer of 2000.

A truck on the Kaibab Paiute reservation in Arizona sparked a fire after itbecame damaged while mired in sand. The fire burned approximately 1,600 acres on a high mesa.

Zimmerman says that by investigating the data before the fire and inputting the variables that occurred during the fire, he and Alcoze could check the success of their model.

The accidental fire, which Alcoze says could have endangered Moccasin and Juniper villages if it had not been quickly extinguished, also provided the professors a chance to combine the wisdom of the Native American culture with the knowledge of modern technology.

Seeking to determine which plant species survive the best after a burn, Zimmerman and Alcoze fenced in a section of the reservation's burn area and created an experimental design. They planted a variety of native plants as well as sod, placing seeds of native plants in soil and combining some of the seeds with fertilizer.

In addition, they created a plot for an area that revegetates without any external manipulation — a control group.

Alcoze and Zimmerman are now monitoring the growth of the plants and collecting data to determine which species are hardiest.

"If native plants thrive and beat out the competition of other vegetation,it will bring back an excellent food source for wildlife," Alcoze says.

Native wisdom

He adds that throughout history, Native American tribes burned prairies using fire as a tool to encourage good growth and productivity.

"Tubers, seed plants and medicine plants all germinate after a fire," hesays.

At one time, the prairie was a supermarket for native peoples, who worked in harmony with the seasons to obtain a steady supply of food, Alcoze says.

To prepare for winter, Native Americans burned prairies behind them as they migrated into woodlands to find warmth in the upcoming cold weather. Since the prairie was no longer a source of food, buffalo migrated to the woods as well, and became food for the people during the winter months.

In the spring, the natives migrated to the prairie that they had burned in the fall, and find new growth and food high in nutrients as a result of the fire.

Out of the ashes

Fires are still used in forest management today, but with the increase in areas of dense human population, intentional fires now pose a greater risk.

Zimmerman cites a prescribed burn that grew out of control and threatened a community. In May 2000, the National Park Service set a fire in Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, N.M., to burn flammable underbrush that could have ignited later in the season.

In a matter of hours, however, the flames were out of control, thanks to wind and low humidity.

The blaze forced more than 25,000 people to evacuate the area. It burned in excess of 43,000 acres at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Zimmerman says if a fire model is used before a prescribed burn, "we would know the potential path the fire would take and could prevent another Los Alamos incident."

He and Alcoze are providing information from their research to the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist in fighting fires.

"The work that Thom and I are doing will contribute to the common goalof addressing a fire threat of major proportions in the future," Zimmermansays.

The collaboration allows Alcoze to contribute the voice of his generation to time-honored oral tradition. It makes Zimmerman aware of the importance of his academic legacy, and it has forged a bond of friendship — testedin fire.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108