When Russell Myers Ross thinks back to the catastrophic wildfires that bore down on his community in B.C.’s central Interior in 2017, he remembers the uncertainty.
“It was a pretty scary event,” says Myers Ross, who at the time was Chief of Yunesit’in, one of six Tsilhqot’in Nation communities. While most residents evacuated, dozens defied orders to leave, instead staying behind to fight the fires and save homes.
In the aftermath, the fear of future wildfires was devastating, Ross says.
“We didn’t want to have it happen again. We wanted to take some level of responsibility and we needed to be more involved in forest management in some way. This was an opportunity to relive what our ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years… and also mitigate future disasters.”
Roughly 60 per cent of Indigenous communities in Canada are located in remote areas surrounded by forest. For millennia, they used Traditional Ecological Knowledge, passed down between generations, to apply fire to the landscape in a way that would reduce wildfire risk, promote revegetation and enhance wildlife habitat.
But the effects of colonization, the criminalization of cultural practices and layers of government red tape have made it difficult to engage traditional burning practices that once gave communities some control over their exposure to fire.
In recent years, the joint forces of climate change and catastrophic wildfires have renewed an interest in prescribed burning and, specifically, Indigenous cultural burning. But as some First Nations look to reignite the practice, they face barriers that include misconceptions about its use, fire management laws, permitting requirements and a lack of training, capacity and funds.
The challenges are laid out in a recently published paper, “The Right to Burn: barriers and opportunities for Indigenous-led fire stewardship in Canada.” The report also presents solutions — five calls to action that could help put wildfire management back in the hands of Indigenous communities that seek to reclaim cultural burning on their traditional territories.
“It almost has become a social justice issue where it’s more about nations wanting to be active on their landscape and what using fire means in terms of their sovereignty and [having] control over their territory,” says Amy Cardinal Christianson, one of the report’s lead authors and a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.
Cardinal Christianson, who is currently working as Parks Canada’s first-ever Indigenous fire specialist, says that while existing Eurocentric wildfire management methods focus on fire suppression and taking a reactive approach, traditional methods manage fire at the landscape level.
“The Indigenous relationship with fire through cultural fire practices is just so much more holistic,” says Cardinal Christianson, who is Métis from Treaty 8 territory. “In many nations, like my own, lots of the knowledge has been lost from taking away the ability for people to share that knowledge and so much of the existing knowledge in many nations right now is with Elders.”
Kira Hoffman is co-lead author on the report, which grew out of conversations she and Cardinal Christianson were having about the barriers to implementing cultural burning. A fire ecologist doing a postdoctoral fellowship with UBC and the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, Hoffman says the paper’s key message is that fire stewardship is “embedded in Indigenous sovereignty.”
“It’s a much bigger question about how to restore these practices to territories,” she says. “No one has ever burned at the scale that they did [pre-contact].”
But colonization brought commercial forestry and seasonal burning became counter to economic interests. Governments began regulating burns, adding layers of bureaucracy and limiting the area within which First Nations were permitted to manage their wildfire risk. Over the last century, flammable fuels accumulated, heightening wildfire risk and making a return to cultural burning more challenging.
While cultural burning is, in theory, unrestricted within reserve lands, its potential is limited there given the small area and proximity to homes, which leaves little space for using fire to knock back dry grass and brush.
Beyond reservation boundaries, First Nations require permits, even on their traditional territories — an onerous and lengthy process that can run counter to narrow burning windows.
“The permits are just really from a western perspective and they’re not about meeting cultural objectives,” Hoffman says. “If you’re trying to burn for mushrooms and flood control, and to reduce pests and clear brush, all at the same time, then you have a pretty specific time that you want to light that burn.”
While there’s a growing incentive to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into existing wildfire management, treating it as an extension or complement to dominant systems not only ventures dangerously into the realm of cultural appropriation and tokenism, the two perspectives often don’t mesh, the researchers say.
“It is two different cultures coming together,” says William Nikolakis, an assistant professor in UBC’s forestry department and executive director of Gathering Voices Society.
Nikolakis and Myers Ross met at a conference in 2015, where Myers Ross shared his concerns about hotter, drier summers and the risk of wildfires to his community. The pair began talking about ways to revitalize cultural burning in Tsilqot’in territory.
Gathering Voices’ Tsilhqot’in Wildfire Management program would become the first and, today, one of the few examples of Indigenous-led fire stewardship in Canada. It is one of two, along with Prince Albert Grand Council’s Wildfire Task Force in northern Saskatchewan, used as a case study in Hoffman and Cardinal Christianson’s research.
The Gathering Voices initiative was slow to get started, Nikolakis admits. It initially struggled to find traction and funding was scarce. Then came the summer of 2017 and the devastating wildfires the community had feared. The disaster galvanized its resolve to take back control of fire management.
“It was devastating, but I feel like it created the catalyst for people to say, ‘No, we want to take back this responsibility for us to steward our lands and fire,’” Nikolakis says. “One of the things that sets us apart from other programs is that there’s not many First Nations that are consistently burning like Yunesit’in with Gathering Voices. We’re actually employing a very traditional burn where we let the fire run and go where it wants to.”
Nikolakis contrasts “cool-intensity burns” used by First Nations with existing “scorched earth policy” prescribed burns and blazing wildfires that he says cauterize the land, killing everything in their path — from berry bushes to good bacteria and seedbanks, along with making the soil hydrophobic, leading to floods and landslides.
“The impacts of these fires are devastating for generations,” he says.
In contrast, cultural burning does more than just protect homes and property by reducing the fuels that increase wildfire risk. It rejuvenates vegetation, encouraging plants such as berry bushes and medicines, and creates green regrowth that draws in wildlife. It eliminates pests, reduces the effects of spring flooding and encourages seed germination.
It also brings intangible benefits — like the health benefits of being on the territory, connecting with other community members.
“We’re able to connect with the land, we get to see how it’s going from year to year, we get to be with each other and hang out for the day and walk the territory,” Myers Ross says. “I think we look at the land in a different way when we come out of it.”
In Yunesit’in, Gathering Voices has helped find funding and build the program, with plans to expand burning from hundreds of hectares a season to thousands in the coming years, Nikolakis says. This year, it is employing more than 40 community members on a seasonal basis — spring and fall — to be on the territory, practising their culture.
“We’re seeing reductions in lifestyle disease, improved physical activity, improved mental health and well-being by people feeling like they’re empowered, have more agency and being able to take up the responsibility of stewarding their lands,” Nikolakis says.
“Going from fear of fire to feeling confident and using it as a tool — that’s a really big win.”
Myers Ross describes the program, which is a partnership with the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations, as a “hybrid type of approach” that combines local knowledge with input from BC Wildfire Service, the Ministry of Forests, First Nations Emergency Services Society and consulting foresters and Indigenous fire management experts. He says he welcomes the additional oversight to ensure safety.
He also warns it’s not a silver bullet. It’s a start. But it needs to happen on a much broader scale to truly address the threat of wildfires.
“We’re trying to do as much evidence-based research as we can to promote this and we want to prove that it does have a benefit,” Myers Ross says.
Research is currently underway to determine things such as health and social factors, the effects of fire on ecosystems and wildlife, and the feasibility of marketing carbon credits for the program.
Currently, training in applied wildfire science or cultural burning is not widely available in Canada, according to the authors of “The Right to Burn” report.
As a result, among its calls to action is a call to offer prescribed fire training beyond wildfire management agencies. It also suggests establishing a National Indigenous Wildfire Stewardship working group, develop a network of experts to identify policy barriers to cultural burning, and increase financial support for First Nations who want to rediscover traditional fire management practices.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it calls on agencies to correct the power imbalances that exist between Indigenous and government fire management practices.
The paper has already sparked conversations with BC Wildfire Service about supporting cultural burning, Hoffman says, and plans are in the works to develop a mobile training that would bring skills and capacity to communities.
“We are fully in conversation about it, we just need that extra push,” she says.
She hopes it won’t come in the form of another catastrophic wildfire season.
“I really hope we’ve learned from the last five years,” she says. “There has been a really big shift, though, in agencies and in their understanding and support for cultural burning. It has really changed in the last few years, and I think this these kinds of papers really help with that.”