Editor’s note: Laurel Kays is the Manager of the Fire Learning Network. She lives and burns in North Carolina, including serving on the board of the North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council. In this blog, Laurel reflects on the writings, books, and people that helped shape her understanding of the history of fire in the U.S.

Independence Day is a time when I think a lot about history – the history of our country, who gets to write it, and how to tell our story in a way that confronts, rather than glosses over, the ugly parts. Like many of us, I wasn’t raised with a particularly accurate version of the past and what that means for the present. Native American history consisted mostly of heavily sanitized stories about figures like Sacagawea with no mention of removal, boarding schools, or what life looks like today for Native People. Anti-Black racism was “solved” in the 1960s and perpetuated by Very Mean People who learned their lesson. Queer people like me were a new phenomenon and not a good one.

College and internet access quickly confronted me with the fact that all of this was, to put it mildly, bullsh*t. It took time, curiosity, and the patience of people I love very dearly to internalize what it meant to know the true history of my country. 

While July 4th and our country’s history are complicated, all dogs are good dogs. Especially when they are forced to wear holiday themed hats.

We wrestle with these same issues in our fire history. It is only recently that we began talking broadly about how the colonization of Native People, greed of timber barons, and Western ideas about owning and conquering land led to complex problems like declining ecosystems and destructive wildfires. Reaching a better future both with fire and in general requires us to understand our past. That must also mean seeing clearly how systems steeped in colonization, greed, and racism have helped create problems we face. 

And so on this July 4th, I’m sharing some resources that have been impactful* for me in better understanding our real fire history, especially in the South that I call home. 

This list is by no means comprehensive, and I encourage you to share books, articles, links, or other resources that have been useful for you. History includes facts and figures, but its essence is the way we arrange those to tell stories about ourselves. Let’s all try to tell a truer story. 

*Caveat that impactful does not mean perfect. Some of these texts contain both important information as well as ideas or language that I take great issue with. Some, like John Shea’s American Forests piece, are useful precisely because they show so clearly how bias and disdain can be couched in academic language. 

Academic Writings

Today’s work is tomorrow’s history. Attending a recent cultural burn with the Lumbee Tribe is one of many moments that give me hope we’re writing a better story for the next generation.



  • Our Pappies Burned the Woods (American Forests) Shea 1940 https://archive.org/details/sim_american-forests_1940-04_46_4/page/n1/mode/2up
    • John Shea was a social scientist hired by the USDA Forest Service in 1940 to analyze why white southerners continued burning despite efforts like the Dixie Crusaders to make them stop. Our Pappies Burned the Woods is a window into how those in power at the time saw woods burning, racial hierarchies, and the (lack of) culture and intelligence of poor white families. It is important to note that this same kind of “social science” was weaponized to an even greater degree against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
  • Indian Country 101 https://www.conservationtraining.org/course/view.php?id=309
    • I do not generally find online trainings that impactful. This is a massive exception and includes a lengthy section on history.
  • Most of the resources on the Association for Fire Ecology’s Cultural Fire page https://fireecology.org/cultural-fire 


This list would be incomplete without recognition of the people from whom I learned about fire, fire history, and the meaning at the heart of both. In a recent Bitter Southerner piece, the incredible Janisse Ray writes of my friend and mentor Jesse Wimberley: “Every day, another vision-keeper stands up. Even as a longleaf lover ages out, 10 more step up to take their place. Someone reading this homage to Jesse and fire will stand up, holding open the hope that we get it all back. They will stand and pick up the torch.” Thank you to all the vision-keepers I have been lucky to know. Happy Fourth of July.


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