International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire

Traditional fire management: historical fire regimes and land use change in pastoral East Africa

Ramona J. Butz
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- Author Affiliations

University of California at Merced, School of Natural Sciences, 5200 North Lake Road, Merced, CA 95343, USA. Email:

International Journal of Wildland Fire 18(4) 442-450
Submitted: 12 May 2007  Accepted: 25 July 2008   Published: 29 June 2009


Although there is considerable research on the ecological effects of fire in sub-Saharan Africa, research on traditional fire practices is very limited and the consequences of substantial changes to historical fire regimes have not been adequately explored. The present paper examines historic and contemporary uses of fire as a land management tool among Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania and explores the potential impacts of changing fire management and fire suppression on savanna vegetation. Village members were interviewed about historical and current practices, reasons for burning, the history of land use, and their perceptions of fire. Eight recent burn sites were selected for examination of size, ignition source, and timing of the burn. The Maasai identified eight major reasons for using fire on a landscape scale in savannas and historically used a progression of small fires throughout the dry season as grasses cured to create a fragmented burn pattern and to prevent large, catastrophic late-season fires. Currently, there is little active vegetation management using fire largely owing to federal fire suppression policies, unpredictable rainfall patterns, increasing population pressures, and a subsequent increase in the number of catastrophic accidental fires. Substantial modifications to historical fire regimes could have cascading consequences for savanna health by increasing late-season fuel loads and the occurrence of large, catastrophic fires.

Additional keywords: AcaciaCommiphora scrub, Maasai, semiarid savannas, Tanzania.


I am deeply indebted to the Maasai of Engikareti who cared for me like family and were willing and active participants in the present research. I would also like to thank Kayongo and Ngongoi Loongiporo, Jeremiah Moleli, Noosikito Mamela, Noonguta Mbayan and Nangoya Olekiano for assistance with data collection, the local government for allowing me to undertake the present research, my Tanzanian advisor Dr Agnes Nyomora, and the Magori family. I am grateful to Mr Emanueli Mboya and the NHT for institutional support, and the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) for research permission. I also gratefully acknowledge the valuable comments made by Dr Daniel Potter, Dr Kevin Rice, Dr Malcolm North, and two anonymous reviewers. Funding was provided by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DEB-0508678), a Garden Club of America Anne S. Chatham Fellowship, a Davis Botanical Society research grant, a University of California Davis (UCD) Consortium for Women and Research grant, a Block Grant Fellowship, a UCD Department of Plant Sciences Fellowship, and a Jastro Shields award. The present research is a collaborative effort with the Maasai of Engikareti; however, I am solely responsible for any errors.


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