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The Cherokee's Relationship With Fire

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

Fire harnessing if often taken for granted by humans today as we have several devices that now create it for use in a manner the user controls. Beyond giving the human species essential control over the climate and environment Fire can conquer and shape the environment. It can remove overpopulated species and help open the way for others to thrive. For this reason, the Cherokee people have a spiritual story behind the initial "embers" giving the local wildlife some of their distinct physical characteristics as they each embark on a journey to harness the fire (Cherokee Nation, 2014). This story not only highlights the importance of light to their society but its significance in shaping the natural world.

Authored by Doc Comeau on Saturday, July 18th, 2021 at 8:00 AM EST

Photo From Boston Public Library

Not much remains of the traditional practices of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. However, According to a study published by the United States Forest Service the traditional home of the Cherokee people uses controlled burns to shape the land around them. The study states that due to the "presence of canebrakes in the Asheville Basin" "the Cherokee likely set fire to the Asheville Basin at regular intervals to clear the land of brush and trees" (DeVivo, 1991). The study explains that a cane begins to wither and get brittle when "continuously" shelter "from fire" which can be halted with controlled "periodic" burnings (DeVivo, 1991). The study determines the most probable reason for the controlled burnings was to "prepare the land for agriculture" (DeVivo, 1991).

According the the “Fire Ecology” resource provided in the prompt for this discussion using controlled burnings can create a wide variety of benefits to the ecosystems that utilize them (Fire Ecology, 2009). The resource highlights that periodic controlled burnings will often limit that amount of burnable material that remains on the ground and therefore dropping the probability of a “large” uncontrollable “wildland fire” (Fire Ecology, 2009). The provided resource also explains that controlled burns can be used to remove invasive species that dominate and smother “native species” leaving behind “ash” and creating a path for sunlight to feed new growth” (Fire Ecology, 2009). New growth combined with charred remains providing “habitat for” other animals within the ecosystem (Fire Ecology, 2009). Uncontrolled burning have a chance to “cause damage to the soil” and allow invasive organisms to take hold and dominate an ecosystem (Fire Ecology, 2009).

The same practice of controlled burning still occurs in the region today. A report filed by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) outlines the procedure that was followed as a result of people filing a complaint following a controlled fire created at Brush Creek by the Cherokee National Forest. This particular burn resulted in a higher than expected “concentration of fine particles” which can cause “health” issues (Jackson, Achtemeier, & Goodrick, 2007). Despite the concerns this impact report was create to access and address, the report still acknowledges and shows that the same use of fire to clear away unwanted growth is still used in the region today.


Cherokee Nation. (2014, April, 16). Robert Lewis-The First Fire [Video file]. Retrieved from

DeVivo, M.S., 1991. Indian use of fire and land clearance in the southern Appalachians. In S.C. Nodvin and T.A. Waldrop (eds.), Fire and the Environment: Ecological and Cultural Perspectives: Proceedings of an International Symposium, 306-310. General Technical Report. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southeastern Forest Experiment Station.

Jackson, W. A., Achtemeier, G. L., & Goodrick, S. (2007). A Technical Evaluation of Smoke Dispersion from the Brush Creek Prescribed Fire and the Impacts on Asheville, North Carolina. Report prepared for the National Interagency Fire Center.

Sodhi, N. & Ehrlich, P. (2010). Conservation Biology for All. New York: Oxford University Press.


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