© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Affected by May 26 tornadoes? Find relief resources here.

New Multimedia StoryMap reveals history of fire in the Ozarks

Prof. Mike Stambaugh seen here tending to a prescribed burn at Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area, part of an oak woodland restoration experiment in Kansas.
Courtesy
/
Mike Stambaugh
Prof. Mike Stambaugh seen here tending to a prescribed burn at Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area, part of an oak woodland restoration experiment in Kansas.

Mike Stambaugh, an associate professor of forestry ecology in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, studies trees that have withstood forest fire.

"So when a fire burns past a tree and it's hot enough it will injure the tree and leave a little scar or mark on the actual tree, on the outside of the tree," he said. "And through time that scar gets embedded into the inside of the tree and stays there."

Scars remain even after trees die. And when sap-preserved dead tree snags or stumps are sawn into segments, the growth cells or rings become visible -- as do any fire scars. This technique allows tree ring scientists like Stambaugh to track the incidence of fire through centuries on the Ozarks -- which encompass south central Missouri, northeastern Oklahoma, and most of north Arkansas.
 

This map reveals a contemporary cultural boundary of the Ozarks, created by Curtis Copeland, Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, for the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.
Courtesy
/
Curtis Copeland
This map reveals a contemporary cultural boundary of the Ozarks, created by Curtis Copeland, Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, for the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.

"Starting in the 1500s we see that fires occurred every 8 to 15 years on average," Stambaugh said. "Sometimes it was two years, sometimes it was 30 years. But about every 8 to 15 years, we would see a fire. And at that time the fires were also potentially very large. We have certain years where fires burned in Oklahoma, in Arkansas, and in Missouri. And many of these years were also drought years and so it is likely that some of these fires in the 1500s,1600s and 1700s were hundreds of thousands of acres if not larger in size — maybe millions of acres of fire."

Fires that burned and moved for months, he said, unabated through grasslands, forests, and open woodlands of the Ozarks over thousands of years, a few ignited by lightning but most caused by humans.

Pre-settlement, the Ozarks were covered with open woodlands, browsed by vast herds of elk and buffalo. Stambaugh said indigenous people used fire strategically to hunt game as well as to clear land for subsistence agriculture, grazing and plant medicines. The fire was also set for signaling and territorial defense.

"When the Europeans got here they actually burned more frequently [compared to] the the indigenous people. They burned often — every year, maybe every three years, in some cases they even burned two times in a single year."

Beginning with the first sawmills in the 1860s and continuing through the 1920s, Ozark forests both in Missouri and Arkansas were heavily logged, the record shows, for railroad ties and dimensional lumber, leaving behind a timbered wasteland.

"And that's when the attitude about fire switched," Stambaugh said, "from instead of it being positive to a negative connotation of having fire in the forest and that's really when we see the era of Smokey the Bear start."

Early fire prevention was a means to restore destroyed forests, initiated by forest management starting in the 1930s. Foresters harvested trees damaged by fire and planted seedlings on scorched landscapes. Fire suppression was widely practiced to protect newly re-established growing forests.

Stambaugh said that intentional or prescriptive forest burning was first deployed around forty years later to improve forest composition.

"In the late 1970s, just a small handful of people started burning glade areas that we knew were transitioning to forest," he said. "And the response was tremendous in terms of the numbers of plants and animals that flourished after the burns. This practice began expanding into forests and there was a lot of question about whether or not forests should be burned or would respond the same way. And by and large we see that in fact they do they increase often in plant diversity and they increase in the types of species that we would consider resilient to not only wildfire, but also in the future to climate change. And so now we have a multitude of studies that the Consortium promotes, including showing the differing effects of burning on wildlife, such as birds and pollinators, on water quality, and the human perspective so there's just a whole amazingly rich kind of connection between the environment, people, and fire."

Stambaugh is referring to the Oak Woodlands & Forests Fire Consortium housed at the University of Missouri — Columbia. The Consortium counts 16 fire council and association partners across eight states.

"And its mission is to increase the availability and consideration of fire science to those who make land management decisions," he said. "And we do this by publishing newsletters and fact sheets, hosting workshops and special projects like the StoryMap."

Hosted by ArcGIS StoryMaps, “Fire in the Ozarks: Burning by humans has shaped the landscape" published by the Oak Woodlands & Forests Fire Consortium was produced by Denise Henderson Vaughn. The Missouri-based science writer, podcaster and documentary producer specializes in Ozark natural resources, focused on forests and karst topography. She welcomes the public to freely navigate the digital StoryMap.

"In the StoryMap you'll find not only text but lots of multimedia opportunities such as slideshows and videos and lots of pictures and maps to make it more interesting," she said.

This ominous prescribed burn, photographed by Denise Henderson Vaughn, is the StoryMap title page.
Courtesy
/
Denise Henderson Vaughn
This ominous prescribed burn, photographed by Denise Henderson Vaughn, is the StoryMap title page.

The StoryMap features a video clip of Joe Marschall, senior research associate at the Center for Tree Ring Science based at the University of Missouri, showing viewers a tree ring slab harvested from a pine-dominated Ozark forest in south central Missouri.

"In our lab's history we have collected samples from over forty different study site locations within the Ozarks totaling well over 1,000 trees," Marschall explains in the video. "This cross section was cut from a dead shortleaf pine tree. The tree ring and fire scar record contained in this tree begins in 1706 which is the very center of the tree, when the tree was germinated. And the tree ring record goes in a continuous line all the way out to when the tree died in 1995. And in between all those times, it recorded eighteen different fires. Each time that tree was injured by fire, it started to grow over that injury which gives us a fire scar, which we can assign a date and sometimes even the season of injury."

The "Fire in the Ozarks" StoryMap contains video of Joe Marschall, seated in the University of Missouri Dendochronology Lab, explaining how fire scars embed in tree rings.
Courtesy
/
Denise Henderson Vaughn
The "Fire in the Ozarks" StoryMap contains video of Joe Marschall, seated in the University of Missouri Dendochronology Lab, explaining how fire scars embed in tree rings.

Denise Henderson Vaughn said "Fire in the Ozarks," is focused on the Current River Watershed in south central Missouri.

"And the reason for that is because the Center for Tree Ring Science has done an incredible amount of study in the Current River Watershed. There have been 27 sites where trees have been sampled for fire scars, so there's a very rich database."

The StoryMap includes a video filmed by Henderson Vaughn, an elder Ozarks native who describes engaging in community burns as a boy.

"Howard Smith is a treasure," she said. 'He grew up in the early 1900s in a community in Summersville, Missouri, where everyone got together and had planned community burns. They would first backfire around their own houses so that their structures wouldn't get burned, and they would go off several miles away and set fires that would burn in towards their structures and this was to create forage for their livestock for the open range grazing."

Denise Henderson Vaughn at work photographing scenes along a tributary of the Jacks Fork River in south central Missouri.
Courtesy
/
Denise Henderson Vaughn
Denise Henderson Vaughn at work photographing scenes along a tributary of the Jacks Fork River in south central Missouri.

 

But Mike Stambaugh said public opposition to intentional fire remains pervasive.

"Often there is a lot of opposition to controlled burning today because of the unfamiliarity that people have with fire in the Ozarks," he said. "And one thing that this StoryMap does and these old fire scarred trees do is they give us examples of different cultures and their relationship to fire. And with that information we can relearn our relationship with fire. Most of us do not use fire day-to-day in our in our way of life. That's not the way it used to be and so it's natural that our relationship with fire is broken. So we need examples from the past to understand how to live with fire. And the StoryMap information really contributes to that."

Mike Stambaugh said the stories these old trees tell are hard to believe, because they reveal a breathtaking incidence of fire in the Ozarks, far more, than anyone knew. He credits the trees, cutting edge research, as well as the new "Fire in the Ozarks" StoryMap for revealing both the ecological as well as a cultural history of fire in the Ozarks.

More information: "StoryMap: Fire in the Ozarks."

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

Stay Connected
Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
Related Content