The workshops were a useful forum in which to learn local knowledge of
traditional fire use and how fire affects the ecosystem, access to resources,
and the village economy. While some of our findings are novel, much of the
information and traditional knowledge that we learned from Athabascan elders and
other local residents could be interpreted in a more-or-less straightforward
manner, consistent with scientific understandings of fire use, ecological
effects of fire, and mixed subsistence economies (Johnson et al. 1995, Lewis
1980, Wolfe and Walker 1987). Most results will be presented in other papers
from the overall project, but here we offer four brief summaries as
Ecological Effects of Fire
Under some conditions fire can enhance local ecosystem productivity. In areas that have experienced multiple and low-intensity burns, for example, berry and plant production are enhanced, improving habitat for browsers such as moose. Burned trees that remain standing are a good source of firewood. The margins of burned areas create unique habitat that is particularly important for species diversity.
It was also noted that very intense fires or areas that have been burned over during consecutive years often result in the destruction of local fisheries due to high levels of ash falling into lakes and rivers. Community members expressed concern over the possibility that high levels of ash and smoke results in the suffocation of fish and water, seeking additional information from the researchers (see section on Spiritual Context).
Transportation and Infrastructure Effects of Fire
According to community members, one of the most direct effects of fire is the challenge of accessing post-burn areas and trying to harvest the resources found in those areas. If fire-breaks or access routes have not been cut in the area during fire fighting, exposed or upturned tree roots and fallen trunks make travel nearly impossible.
The growth of vegetation following fire can be extremely dense, inhibiting travel and making an area inaccessible to both hunters and game. One participant compared travel through these areas to “driving along a rabbit trail through a jungle.” In some cases, residents have tried to re-burn an area many times to thin the thick shrub birch, but have been unable to start a burn hot enough.
Also of concern was the loss of trapping and shelter cabins. In many cases these cabins have been used for generations and store valuable supplies such as fishing gear, traps, stoves, snowshoes, and survival gear as well as items such as fish traps from earlier generations that have cultural and sentimental importance. In fact, the items stored in cabins may be much more valuable than the cabins themselves. For safety reasons, it is particularly important to protect shelter cabins from fire. When they have been burned, it may be difficult to secure the necessary funds and permits to rebuild them, posing a substantial risk to winter travelers.
Economic Effects of Fire
Wage income is critical to meet the costs of equipment and supplies (e.g., boats, snowmachines, fuel, guns, ammunition, fish nets, etc.) needed for subsistence hunting and fishing. Local residents noted that, because employment opportunities are scarce in rural villages, emergency fire-fighting (EFF) plays an important role in supporting subsistence activities. Fire-fighting wages are not, however, always beneficial to the communities. They can lead to negative impacts, such as increased purchase and use of alcohol.
In addition to fire suppression activities, hazard fuel reduction programs are being implemented around some Interior Alaskan communities. With funding from the National Fire Plan, these projects provide the dual function of reducing fire risk around homes, fuel depots, cemeteries and other important cultural sites we well as providing more stable, longer-term employment than on-demand EFF work. While the need for fuel reduction is widely recognized and local employment highly desirable, there is also concern that cutting fire lines around villages may open up unwanted access to non-local hunters.
In contrast to other interior Alaska groups where controlled burns were used seasonally to improve moose and muskrat habitat (Natcher 2004), Huslia residents found no need to use fire to change the land. Their location at the edge of the boreal forest, together with the disturbance that occurs naturally with river breakup in the region, leaves little or no need to use fire to create additional landscape diversity. Fire was used, however, on a smaller scale, for example to safeguard winter food caches from potential scavengers (see below for further discussion of this point). Ashes continue to be spread on tent flooring to impede insect pests.
Huslia residents also understand the beneficial properties fire can have when introduced into the environment through controlled means, as is demonstrated by the villages willingness to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to burn the shoreline of nearby Three-Day Slough. The effects of this experimental, prescribed burn will be assessed in terms of its overall impact on moose and muskrat habitat. However, Huslia residents are equally aware that controlled fires can have detrimental and unanticipated effects. For example, in the Kobuk and Noatak region to the northwest of Huslia, human-induced fires unexpectedly forced bears to move to the coast.