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Oregon Trails: Fire as a Friend

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MEDFORD, Ore. — Every year wildfires burn hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland and grass across the West. For a hundred years now, it’s been a battle for forester and landowners to keep those wildfires under control, but it wasn’t always that way. Former Rogue River Forest Service Archaeologist  Jeff LeLande, explains why he thinks fire was one way Native Americans were able to keep food on the table.

Towers of flame leaping into the sky are what most of us think of when we picture fire burning through the forest and grasslands of our region; something that is a threat to homes, people and livestock. With more and more people moving into forest interface areas, this is a real concern. In fact, massive wildfires that raced across the Northwest a hundred years ago led to the creation of the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the U.S. Forest Service’s Commission to protect our land from fires.

Despite what one may think, for many early settlers and Native Americans way before these organizations originated, fire was a way to clear unwanted vegetation and to ensure a place to gather nuts and berries, and also hunt wild game.

Jeff says they, “concentrated the scattered deer closer and closer together, and yelling people and barking dogs (their one domestic animal) drove the critters, frightened and exhausted into small brush enclosures, where humans and canines worked together to dispatch as many of the exhausted animals as possible.”

Speaking before a “windows in time” audience at the Ashland Library he says Natives used fire to not only clear brush and debris, but to also help herd deer into an ambush and help gather other wild game.

He also says, “other fast moving fires were set in our Valley, for example by the Takilma, in the same kinds of valley areas when the grasshoppers were incredibly thick, in late summer. The flames roasted these insects in huge quantities for gathering, milling and later consumption.”

In the higher elevations, fire was a way of preserving the precious huckleberry patches that continue to draw gatherers today.

“They loved those berries and they didn’t want ‘em to get over-topped by the forest. The native people of our area set fire to the berry patches at places like Huckleberry Mountain, which is near Crater Lake, or those along the Rogue-Umpqua Divide at the end of the berry harvest after mid-September.”

That served to “prune” the berries, in a way, for better production the next season. Women used to dry berries from the heat of a smoldering log, which LeLande says would probably be left to burn until winter rains and snows snuffed the fire out.

Early explorers say they often saw Indians setting fires as well.

Jeff explains how others remember seeing this, “Several members in their accounts later reported watching an elderly Indian woman armed with a firebrand intently burning a bushy hillside near present-day Ashland. Those Wilkes party uh, guys had cursed the dense smoke and soot caused by the ever-present ‘Indian-set fires’–their term–that impeded their southward trek from the Willamette Valley.”

Tar weed was also considered a valuable crop that was enhanced by frequent fires.

Jeff says, “Because that oil–the tar–on the stalks– was very volatile, but it would burn extremely fast, and after the fire went through like a flash it left the stalks of the tar weed uh, plants, uh standing. They were charred but it also burned off all the, the tar! And so the Indian women would go through the tar weed uh, on the hillside that were burned with a big burden basket and bending the stalks over, and using something that was described as shaped kind of like a tennis racket, and beating the heads of the flowers until you have this big burden basket full of these tiny seeds. All from lighting off a fire!”

The oak covered hillside on the east side of what is now Medford likely would’ve been a place where Native Americans would’ve gathered acorns for their winter food supply. They also might have burned the grass and brush off to help open up the ground underneath the trees. Today fire is a thing to be feared here, because houses are growing on these hillsides.

Jeff also says miners may have used fire as well, to burn away leaves, grasses and brush in rocky areas to expose possible ore-bearing areas.