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Aboriginal man and white man as historical causes of fires in the boreal forest, with particular reference to Alaska Public Deposited

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  • The boreal forest of North America is especially liable to destruction by fires. It is a region in which forest fires have been extremely common and wide spreading. Lightning is certainly one of the causes of fires but man, both aboriginal and white, has been an even more prolific source. The general attitude of aboriginal man toward fire was that of carelessness. Campfires were in general use and the evidence is that they were not carefully extinguished but frequently started forest fires. Use of fire in signaling was widespread and must have been a major source of forest fires. Wherever the birch bark canoe was used, frequent gumming of sewn seams was necessary along with repairs of cracks or tears in the bark. This necessitated making a fire for heating and applying the gum; the evidence is that this use of fire at least occasionally lead to fires in the forest. Fires were at times used in hunting but this practice probably was not an important source of forest burning. On some occasions, at least, aboriginal man seems to have employed fire in warfare but evidence on this use is scanty. In his efforts to combat mosquitoes and gnats, aboriginal man generally employed fire and smoke and this led to frequent forest fires. Of the miscellaneous uses of fire by aboriginal man that occasionally must have led to forest burning the following seem most worthy oi mention: clearing away of forest growth, cutting down trees, cutting up of trunks of fallen, or felled trees and killing trees for a supply of dry fuel. It seems certain that even prior to contact with white man, aboriginal man was responsible for frequent and widespread fires in the boreal forest. White man was, without doubt, the cause of even more fires in the boreal forest than was aboriginal man. He was generally careless and possessed easier means of striking fire. Campfires left without being extinguished resulted in a tremendous amount of forest burning. The frequent practice of setting fires to provide a supply of dry fuelwood likewise led to much forest destruction. Fires set to combat the mosquito pest were so frequently a cause of forest burning that it was commonly said that "mosquitoes cause more fires than any other one thing." Use of fire in signaling was not confined to the natives; the practice was also employed by white man and is known to have resulted in extensive forest fires. White man also adopted, at least occasionally, the practice of using fire in hunting. He burned off the forest to promote the growth of grass for his livestock, and he employed fire in clearing land. Prospectors were known to burn the forest to remove the vegetation mantle and expose the surface rock. Incredible as it may be, white man is also known to have set the forest afire just to see it burn or "for fun." In the boreal forest there were many fires whose causes are unknown. Some of these must have resulted from lightning but it is likely that most of them were caused by man, either aboriginal or white. It is probable that there have been fires in the northern forests ever since there were forests to burn. Destruction of timber and other values has been enormous but the boreal forest has generally shown a remarkable capacity to recover, to rise again, phoenix-like, from its own ashes.
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