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Burning issues by Cathy Cashio
Spring 2002      

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Thomas Alcoze

Earl Zimmerman

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Burning Issues

Straight Talk

Building a P.R.I.N.T.
Layer by Layer

The Drive to Succeed

Photo of Thom Alcoze with fire
Thom Alcoze uses fire as a teaching tool.

Thom Alcoze 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. It’s all about life-giving energy,” he says.

Full circle

“I got my first real taste of research at UNT, with Earl Zimmerman as my professor,” Alcoze says.

Zimmerman, currently chair of UNT’s biological sciences department, encouraged Alcoze’s passion for scientific endeavor.

Photo of Alcoze and Zimmerman
Alcoze and Zimmerman united at the reservation burn site.

“When I saw Thom’s enthusiasm and commitment during his master’s research, I knew he would do well wherever his research took him,” says Zimmerman. Alcoze went on to earn a doctoral degree from Michigan State University.

Now the path from UNT to his doctoral work and his study of Native American land practices has brought him full circle.

Alcoze was on UNT’s 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 fire.

Zimmerman’s 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 nutrient value.

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.

“I 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 fire’s path is known in advance, residents in its way can be alerted to the impending threat.


Photo of land in northern Arizona
  Land devastated by forest fire in northern Arizona.

Fire on the mountain

To determine the success of the computer fire model, Zimmerman needed to overlap the virtual world of the model with a real-life burn.

An opportunity 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.

“Something 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, he says.

“By 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.

The accidental fire also provided a chance to marry the wisdom of the Native American culture and the knowledge of modern technology.

“We wanted to determine which plant species survives the best after a burn,” says Alcoze.

Zimmerman and Alcoze fenced a section of the reservation’s 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.

“If native plants thrive and beat out the competition of other vegetation, it will bring back an excellent food source for wildlife,” says Alcoze.

Native wisdom

“Throughout 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 food.

To prepare 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.

In working with nature, says Alcoze, natives kept what is called “fuel loading” — an overabundance of flammable vegetation — to a minimum.

Out of the ashes

Fires are still used in forest management today, but with the increase in areas of dense human population, intentional fires now pose a greater risk.

Zimmerman 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.

The blaze forced more than 25,000 people to evacuate the area. It burned in excess of 43,000 acres at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“If 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.

Together, 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.

“We 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.”

The collaboration 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 in fire.



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