An assessment of fire, climate, and apache history in the sacramento mountains, New Mexico

Thomas W. Swetnam, Margot W. Kaye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


Fire historians typically attribute the causes of temporal change in past fire regimes to climatic variation, human land use, or some combination of the two. Most long-term historical reconstructions, however, lack time and place-specific chronologies for all three variables of fire, climate, and people. To test the hypothesis that Mescalero Apache of southeastern New Mexico influenced fire regimes of the Sacramento Mountains, we reconstructed and compared chronologies of key variables for the period A.D. 1700 to the present. Fire-scarred trees were used to reconstruct fire frequencies and culturally modified (peeled) trees, and written histories were used to identify places and times of Mescalero presence. Independent precipitation reconstructions from tree rings were compared with fire and human histories. We found that Mescalero frequently visited the western escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains during the late 1700s through the late 1800s, especially the Dog Canyon area. Fire frequency was higher and seasonal timing of fires was different in sites near Dog Canyon compared to relatively distant sites. Inter-annual to decadal-scale drought might explain some temporal variability in fire and peeling activity, but these relationships were not consistent. We conclude that people increased fire occurrence during certain time periods in localized areas, but broad-scale and persistent human impacts did not occur until the end of the 19th century with the rise of livestock grazing by European settlers and fire suppression by government agencies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)305-330
Number of pages26
JournalPhysical Geography
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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