The intersection of expanding human development and wildland landscapes—the “wildland–urban interface” or WUI—is one of the most vexing contexts for fire management because it involves complex interacting systems of people and nature. Here, we document the dynamism and stability of an ancient WUI that was apparently sustainable for more than 500 y. We combine ethnography, archaeology, paleoecology, and ecological modeling to infer intensive wood and fire use by Native American ancestors of Jemez Pueblo and the consequences on fire size, fire–climate relationships, and fire intensity. Initial settlement of northern New Mexico by Jemez farmers increased fire activity within an already dynamic landscape that experienced frequent fires. Wood harvesting for domestic fuel and architectural uses and abundant, small, patchy fires created a landscape that burned often but only rarely burned extensively. Depopulation of the forested landscape due to Spanish colonial impacts resulted in a rebound of fuels accompanied by the return of widely spreading, frequent surface fires. The sequence of more than 500 y of perennial small fires and wood collecting followed by frequent “free-range” wildland surface fires made the landscape resistant to extreme fire behavior, even when climate was conducive and surface fires were large. The ancient Jemez WUI offers an alternative model for fire management in modern WUI in the western United States, and possibly other settings where local management of woody fuels through use (domestic wood collecting) coupled with small prescribed fires may make these communities both self-reliant and more resilient to wildfire hazards.
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