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A firefighter controlling a fire

The Role of Fire on the South Puget Sound Prairies

Prescribed Fireis the use of fire as a tool to improve ecological conditions for particular animals and to improve several aspects of the lands ecological functions.


Fire, and all its compelling, complex and sometimes frightening majesty, plays a fundamentally important role in the prairie ecosystem.


Though early fire on the prairie landscape is somewhat shrouded in mystery, it is known that the Native people in the area began to burn the grasslands in order to maintain open prairie and oak woodlands that they used for growing foods and medicines, and for hunting. The tribes in the South Puget Sound region developed sophisticated methods for managing the prairies. There is evidence that suggests that tribes actively consulted one another and may have participated in cross-tribal burning practices. During this period, the prairies were probably burned about every one to five years.


A burning fir treeThe prairies that existed in the 1820’s were the result of thousands of years of interactions between the native people’s burning, and harvesting practices, and the plants and animals that inhabited the region. The long duration of these interactions developed an ecosystem that is unique in the world, containing several species and plant communities that exist no where else.


In the mid 1800’s, as European settlers fled to the region to set up farming and animal husbandry practices, fires were actively discouraged, and the use of the prairies by Native Americans was largely ended. These European settlers were originally drawn to the natural beauty and vast open landscape that the fires had helped sustain. This era of fire suppression resulted in diminished prairie lands with non-native plants and Douglas fir encroaching onto the once open grasslands.


Beginning in the 1980’s prescribed fire was reintroduced to help preserve what was left of the prairie landscape. Several plants and animals benefit from this practice because fire removes dead thatch, and pest plants, and stimulates new growth. Changes in soil nutrient cycling, which tends to reduce nutrients that invite pest plants to the area, are also a valuable product of burning. As new lush growth emerges following a fire, deer and elk are drawn back to the area. Butterfly host plants multiple, ensuring food for the next generation of caterpillars, and thereby benefiting the future of the prairie butterflies.


Overall, fire is an important part of the cultural history of this region, it directly benefits several species of plants and animals, and it is a critical part of the ecosystem processes that sustains the South Puget Sound prairies.

A firefighter controlling a fire

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