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To appreciate the pervasive role of fire in shaping southern forests requires an understanding of the dynamic response of southern ecosystems to climate change since the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which began around 18,000 years ago, and the extent of human influence, which likely began about 14,000 years ago. Humans exert an influence by igniting or suppressing fires. Native Americans used fire extensively for thousands of years. The early European settlers continued and to a degree expanded the use of fire. In the last century, however, human influence over fire in the South changed markedly.
We have divided the long history of fire since humans arrived in the South into five periods:
From the earliest appearance of humans in North America around 14,000 years ago (Fagan 2000) until European contact 500 years ago, the first period was one of increasing human population level and more extensive use of fire.
For the first 400 years after their arrival, the early European settlers continued to use fire in much the same way as Native Americans, often reoccupying and farming land cleared by Native Americans and expanding burning of woodlands to provide forage for livestock (Williams 1992).
A at the end of the 19th century and extending into the 20th century, the remaining southern forests were extensively logged to support economic expansion; wildfires were common in the slash left behind.
In reaction to these widespread and destructive wildfires, the fourth period of fire suppression started in the early 1900s.
The current period is one of fire management, in which the natural role of fire is increasingly recognized and incorporated into forest management.
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