Toward a better understanding of climate and human impacts on late Holocene fire regimes in the Pacific Northwest, USA

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In order to fully appreciate the role that fire, both natural and anthropogenic, had in shaping pre-Euro-American settlement landscapes in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), it is necessary to develop a more robust method of evaluating paleofire reconstructions. Here we demonstrate an approach that includes the identification of charcoal morphotypes (i.e. visually distinct charcoal particles), and incorporates both paleoecological and archaeological data sets, to more specifically determine both the nature of past fire regimes (i.e. fuel type and fire severity) and the likely ignition source of those fires. We demonstrate the usefulness of this approach by reconstructing the late Holocene fire and vegetation histories of Lake Oswego (Clackamas County), Oregon, and Fish Lake (Okanogan County), Washington, using macroscopic charcoal and pollen analysis of sediment cores. The histories were compared with climatic records from the PNW as well as archaeological, ethnographic, and historical records from the Lower Columbia River Valley and Southern Columbia Plateau cultural regions. Our results indicate that while centennial-to-millennial-scale climate change had limited influence on the fire regimes at the study sites during the past ∼3800 years, the use of fire by Native Americans for a variety of reasons, particularly after ca. 1200 calendar years before present (AD 750), had a far greater impact. Charcoal morphotype ratios also indicate that fires in the two watersheds were fundamentally different in their severity and impact, and led to major shifts in the forests and woodlands surrounding Lake Oswego, but helped maintain the ponderosa pine-dominated forest at Fish Lake. The elimination of fire from the two study sites during the past 100–300 years is likely the combined result of Euro-American contact and the arrival of disease in the PNW, as well as 20th-century fire suppression and grazing effects on fuel continuity, which has implications for future forest management and restoration efforts in the PNW.


This article was originally published in Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment


© The Author(s) 2018