Human Use of Fire

Fire has been used throughout history to shape the environment, improve hunting, and as an act of war. Nowadays, fire is used regularly to benefit natural habitats and resources.


Native Americans have great respect for the fire phenomenon—some named it “Grandfather Fire.” Historically, many Native Americans used fire as a tool to shape their environment and improve hunting. A century before European settlers arrived on North American shores on the Mayflower, the bison (or American buffalo), traditionally a western North American species, moved to the eastern portion of the continent following fires, many of which were probably set by Native Americans. The fires burned the brush and trees and are believed to have helped in the creation of more open areas conducive to growth of grasslands, the lands upon which bison depend for food.

Fire was used by Native Americans for hunting many different animals. Desert tribes removed ground cover with fire to facilitate lizard hunts. The Apaches used smoke to attract deer that were tormented by mosquitoes and flies. The deer would enter smoky areas to escape the bothersome insects and thus become easy targets for the hunters. European settlers observed Native Americans using fire to herd deer onto peninsulas. Once in these small areas, deer could be hunted more easily from canoes.

More than improving hunting, fire was also used as an instrument of war. Nomadic peoples burned the areas surrounding their lodges to thwart their enemies' attempts to burn them out. When hunting parties entered another tribe’s territory, some of the parties would deliberately set fires. This often would deprive the home tribe of forage but would make for better hunting in the following year when the interloping tribe returned.

group of men inthe woods

Firefighters on the Yosemite Fire look on as the Southern Sierra Miwuk engage in a ceremony and traditional methods to ignite a prescribed fire at Yosemite National Park. NPS Photo by Brent Johnson.

In California’s Yosemite Valley, Native Americans used fire as a tool to shape the lands for at least 4,000 years. The cumulative effects of the thousand years of burning by Native Americans had profound impacts on the landscape that European settlers found. When the first European colonists landed in the New World, they were amazed at how much savanna (or grassland) existed. As European settlers advanced across the continent, though, the frequency of fires declined. Consequently, woody vegetation and forests overtook some grassland corridors originally created by the fires set by Native Americans.

Europeans held a view of fire, its effects and consequences that was very different from the Native American view of the natural phenomena. At the close of the 19th century, settlers concentrated on permanent husbandry of the forests to protect watersheds and forest products. Crops also were of concern when wildfire control was discussed. As fences began to create a patchwork across the once open expanses of prairie and forest, fire became an enemy capable of destroying all that had been achieved.