Thom Alcoze uses fire as a teaching tool.
has gathered his students in the Arizona wilderness. Smoke rises
in the crisp air while the sun sets over the mountains. Alcoze has
started a fire. It grows brighter as the sun fades. This is his
classroom. Fire is his focus.
An associate professor of forestry who is part Cherokee, Alcoze
(69, 72 M.S.) uses Native American tradition to inform
students about modern forestry techniques and forest fires. His
research involves the use of traditional Native American ecological
knowledge for land-restoration practices.
All life comes from fire, says Alcoze, who teaches at
Northern Arizona University. The first fire is the sun giving
life to the earth.
First, sunlight energizes a tree, then humans cut the tree down,
burn it and release the power of the sun once again, he says. This
is the second fire.
Call it photosynthesis. Call it solar radiation, if you like.
Its all about life-giving energy, he says.
got my first real taste of research at UNT, with Earl Zimmerman
as my professor, Alcoze says.
currently chair of UNTs biological sciences department, encouraged
Alcozes passion for scientific endeavor.
Alcoze and Zimmerman united at the reservation burn site.
I saw Thoms enthusiasm and commitment during his masters
research, I knew he would do well wherever his research took him,
says Zimmerman. Alcoze went on to earn a doctoral degree from Michigan
path from UNT to his doctoral work and his study of Native American
land practices has brought him full circle.
on UNTs campus in 1998 to talk with a colleague about environmental
science when he reunited with Zimmerman. It was the first time they
had seen each other in more than 25 years. After talking about the
scientific research they were working on, they decided to combine
their expertise and collaborate on an ecological experiment involving
research used technology to determine the burn path of a fire, and
Alcoze contributed his knowledge of historical Native American land-management
practices native nations have used seasonal burning techniques
for hundreds of years to enrich the soil and grow plants with high
By employing native land-management techniques and using landscape
imagery from satellites, these scientists can prevent the accidental
spread of fire on reservations and elsewhere.
use a geographical information system to create a fire model,
says Zimmerman. A GIS is nothing more than a computer package
that overlays multiple layers of information to build a pattern.
A fire model
is like a dress rehearsal for a real fire. The model is created
when various conditions such as vegetation types, wind velocity
and direction, geological strata, altitude, fire ignition points
and human population sites are programmed onto the virtual
GIS landscape to determine the most likely path a fire will take.
If the fires path is known in advance, residents in its way
can be alerted to the impending threat.
devastated by forest fire in northern Arizona.
on the mountain
the success of the computer fire model, Zimmerman needed to overlap
the virtual world of the model with a real-life burn.
to do so presented itself by chance. In the summer of 2000, a truck
on the Kaibab Paiute reservation in Arizona became mired in sand
while traveling on treacherous terrain.
ruptured in the vehicle that sparked a fire,says Alcoze. It
burned about 1,600 acres on a high mesa.
If the fire had not been extinguished, it could have found a path
down a nearby canyon and endangered Moccasin and Juniper villages,
looking at data before the fire and then inputting the variables
that occurred during the fire, we could check the success of our
model, says Zimmerman.
fire also provided a chance to marry the wisdom of the Native American
culture and the knowledge of modern technology.
wanted to determine which plant species survives the best after
a burn, says Alcoze.
and Alcoze fenced a section of the reservations burn area
and created an experimental design. They planted a variety of native
plants as well as sod. They also placed seeds of native plants in
soil and combined some of the seeds with fertilizer. In addition,
a plot was made for an area that revegetates without any external
manipulation a control group. The scientists are now monitoring
the growth of the plants and collecting data to determine which
species survive best.
native plants thrive and beat out the competition of other vegetation,
it will bring back an excellent food source for wildlife,
history, native nations burned prairies using fire as a tool to
encourage good growth and productivity, says Alcoze. Tubers,
seed plants and medicine plants all germinate after a fire.
At one time,
the prairie was a supermarket for native peoples, he says. They
worked in harmony with the seasons to obtain a steady supply of
for winter, the people burned prairies behind them as they went
into the woodlands for warmth. Since the prairie was no longer a
source of food, buffalo migrated to the woods as well. They became
food for people during the winter months.
In the spring,
the natives would migrate to the prairie that had been burned in
the fall. They would find new growth and food high in nutrients
as a result of the fire.
with nature, says Alcoze, natives kept what is called fuel
loading an overabundance of flammable vegetation
to a minimum.
of the ashes
still used in forest management today, but with the increase in
areas of dense human population, intentional fires now pose a greater
cites a recent prescribed burn that grew out of control and threatened
a community. In May 2000, the National Park Service set a fire in
Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, N.M., to burn flammable
underbrush that might ignite later in the season.
In a matter
of hours, however, windy conditions and low humidity contributed
to uncontrollable flames.
forced more than 25,000 people to evacuate the area. It burned in
excess of 43,000 acres at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
we used a fire model before a prescribed burn, we would know the
potential path the fire would take and could prevent another Los
Alamos incident, says Zimmerman.
he and Alcoze are providing information from their research to the
Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, the Bureau
of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department
of Agriculture to assist in fighting fires.
are pooling our resources, says Zimmerman. The work
that Thom and I are doing will contribute to the common goal of
addressing a fire threat of major proportions in the future.
allows Alcoze to contribute the voice of his generation to time-honored
oral tradition. It makes Zimmerman aware of the importance of his
academic legacy, and it has forged a bond of friendship tested