Charles Lafon, Texas A&M professor of geography, has studied the fire history of forests throughout the southern and central Appalachian Mountains, and says trees have a lot to tell.
"We found one tree that has had at least 14 fires, and we found many other trees that had endured multiple fires," he said, noting many trees in the area had survived numerous fires over the past centuries.
That reveals a lot about the area's human history, he said.
"We know that Indians often set fires to clear areas, and from records we have learned that the early settlers of the area also set fires so they could clear lands for grazing and planting crops," he said.
A demand for lumber in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to a tremendous amount of logging, he said, and fires were seen as a threat to a natural resource, motivating the fire protection campaigns of the 20th century.
"The point is, there have always been fires in forests," Lafon said. "Sometimes fires are a good thing because they are nature's way of starting over and producing new growth, and sometimes they are destructive."