Before the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans used fire as a means of land management to promote hunting and agriculture as well as clear trails and the areas around settlements.
After settlers arrived, they worked to suppress and restrict fire, a practice that persisted in forest management into the 1970’s. As a result of this fire suppression, the amount of plant material that built up in forests reached unnaturally high levels. In addition, the types of plants and animals in the forests slowly changed over time, as woody plants such as oaks were able to survive without frequent fires. As the frequency of fire decreased, the amount of available fuel, dead plant material and vegetation easily susceptible to burning increased. When eventually ignited by lightning or other fire triggers, the unnaturally high fuel load led to larger, more severe, and more difficult to control fires. The end result of these unprecedentedly severe fires was a longer forest recovery time, due in part to the larger amount of land affected and the greater amount of vegetation destruction.
The U.S. government passed legislation in the late 1800’s that mandated the protection of national forest reserves – lands initially protected to provide timber for commercial logging, which is the practice of cutting down trees to be sold. The legislation mandated protecting these forests from fire to prevent commercial timber from burning. While this outlook helped preserve the scenic beauty of the land and protect timber, it disrupted the natural process of forests to replenish themselves sustainably (being maintained at a certain level). Without fire to remove dead plant material and small plants on the forest floor, forests fuel levels increased.