Fires on the Malheur

Fires on the Malheur


In an earlier article, I wrote about how anthropologenic fire-setting by Native American peoples was good for the land. I suggested that even the fires set by the Hammonds on leased BLM lands which burned onto the Malheur Wildlife Refuge may be seen as positive for the land.


However, I have now read through the details of how the Hammonds went about setting their fires, the source of their court convictions, and the reason they lost their lease. This conflict has nothing to do with the cost of their lease. After reading their Grazing lease application decision (denial), the way they went about setting the fires was not in any way positive towards the land.

First they seemed to want to take no responsibility for setting the fires. They originally set the fires to eliminate juniper so more grass would grow for their cattle. In fact the BLM had set a fire for them to help with eliminating juniper. But members of the Hammonds family were setting fires repeatedly in a haphazard manner, without approval. There are other properties around the refuge, like the refuge and other distant neighbors who’s houses may have been endangered by the fire-setting. Then they avoided blame by letting other elements take the blame, like the unlikely origin in a passing jet.

And, on at least one occasion they took pot shots at herds of deer, not collecting the carcasses nor chasing down the deer to make sure they were dead, but allowing the deer to suffer being wounded. They probably died a horribly painful death. Most hunters I know have enough respect for the animals they hunt to not allow the animals to suffer.


The Hammonds appear to have only cared about maximizing the profits from their leased BLM land. They did not care about the land, the animals living there, or about the neighbors in the surrounding area. The militia, who supposedly represent the interests of the farmers and ranchers, and the Hammonds, are only telling a small portion of the story. They are only stating that the farmers and ranchers are being unfairly forced to sell their land. (this apparently happened in the 1960s) They never reveal the facts of this situation and in many cases these are details also left out of media stories about the militia and the Hammonds. (note: there are more ranchers in the area today than farmers, but historically there was a mixture.)

Native Anthropologenic fire is much different from the Hammonds’ actions. Tribes in western Oregon and California would set fires in the fall over prairies that had plant resources they wanted to revive and help restore for the next year. The fire setting would keep down the extra bramble growth of undesirable plants, create grazing for deer and elk with the regrowth of tender grasses, and help keep down pest populations. Native peoples did this over prairies that were full of oaks (oak savannahs) which helped the oaks produce more acorns in the next season. Acorns were a good source of protein. They would also fire prairies with tarweed and wild grains where they would collect the roasted grains for food. Plants like hazels are used for weaving and after burning them, they grow back straighter the next year perfect for weaving. Then roasted grasshoppers would be eaten by some tribes. Root crops would survive underground to be reborn in the next year.


In eastern Oregon, anthropologenic and natural fires would serve the same purposes. When the environment is quite different from the western inland valleys full of oak savannah and plenty of rainfall, Native people collected many root crops in the high deserts of the basin. They also utilize many plants in marshy areas for weaving materials to make amazing basketry. Some of the oldest sandals in the world, woven from marsh reeds were found at Fort Rock and Paisley Caves southwest of the Malheur area. If Tribes set fires they would be doing so to manage their land in the most effective means possible, and, they would do so at a time in the fall, after the first rains, when firestorms would not be a possibility. They would not endanger their neighbors. The Southern Paiute were are noted to have set fires to improve their seed crops and to conduct rabbit drives (Stewart, Omer Call Stewart. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness, U. Oklahoma Press, 2002. p. 246).

Microsoft Word - Oregon Encyclopedia-Fort Rock Cave.doc
Fort Rock Sandals, Image on loan from the Oregon Encyclopedia, and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, Eugene.

Because Tribal peoples set fires annually, they were reducing the duff layer of dead plant matter so the fires would not have extra fuel each year. Too much fuel causes stronger and more destructive fires. This is part of source of the fire problems that many forests are now encountering in the West, causing many forestry authorities to begin to change their policies regarding fire suppression. This past summer  (2015) may be the worst on record for fire in the West. The 2012 Forest Service reversal of the let-natural-fires-burn policy, adopted in 1995, back to full suppression, may continue to be costly if allowed to stand. Much of the policy depends on progressive administrators in the various bureaus with many local agencies really dependent on the policy set by the regional head offices. Additional factors to be considered are the hotter temperatures the West endured this past year and the multi-years droughts in the region due to lack of rainfall.

Such a fire-setting system of land management or “fuel suppression policy” can be safely implemented in many areas. Such a policy must be carefully managed and everyone needs to be on board with the arrangements. Fire-setting should not be done in a secretive manner and be safe and effective. The Hammonds were given a very light sentence from the judge they had. They should have received more charges and penalties for endangering their neighbors, being heartless and irresponsible with animals on the refuge, and lying about their actions to avoid the consequences.

Additional articles about this issue, 10,000 years of Paiute Lands, and A True History of the Malheur Region.

One thought on “Fires on the Malheur

  1. Reblogged this on GOPHER VALLEY JOURNAL and commented:
    Appropriate commentary here on a current event unfolding in eastern Oregon. Arsonists do not represent the best face of residents in Oregon.

    There is a lot of good collaborative work going on between US Fish and Willdife managers at Malheur NWR and local ranchers to cooperatively manage for best practices and maximum value to ranchers and wildlife. See more on the benefits to the local economy here and here

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