Over the past five years, B.C. has experienced the three worst wildfire seasons ever recorded. The record-breaking heat dome of 2021 exacerbated a devastating fire season and destroyed the town of Lytton. In both 2017 and 2018, more than a million hectares burned across B.C.
In the face of an escalating climate crisis that will bring hotter, drier summers, one thing is abundantly clear: we can’t just fight fires. We need to prevent them.
William Nikolakis, executive director of the Gathering Voices Society and an assistant professor with the UBC department of forestry, spent several years in the Northern Territory of his native Australia, where Indigenous communities were revitalizing cultural burns, similar to the practices once used by First Nations in Canada. Since 2019, Gathering Voices has worked with the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in First Nations, two of the six Tŝilhqot'in Nations, to reignite the practice of cultural burns in B.C.
In recognition for this work, their Tsilhqot’in Wildfire Management initiative has received the 2022 Land Use and Conservation Land Award from the Real Estate Foundation of BC.
Traditional Indigenous fire management relies on controlled burns, set at specific times of year when there is still snow on the ground. These low-intensity burns help to clear out brush and dead vegetation that accumulates in forests, which would otherwise serve as fuel for the spread of a deadly wildfire. Controlled burning is also beneficial for the local ecosystem, spurring plants and grasses to new growth and regenerating food sources for wildlife.
Historically, these fire management practices were used by First Nations in B.C. to keep forests and grasslands in balance before they were banned by provincial legislation, beginning in the 19th century. Until recently, the prevailing approach to managing wildfires was to put them out after they had ignited — a tactic that led to a dangerous buildup of dense, dry brush in forests, and one that is increasingly insufficient during hotter, longer wildfire seasons.
“I think there is now a general consensus that prescribed burns are a good thing, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into practice,” says Nikolakis. “What we’re saying is, let’s empower First Nations to use their approaches to manage wildfires, and resource their communities to do the work.”
In 2015, Nikolakis met then-Chief Russell Myers Ross of the Yunesit’in Nation. “He told me that the biggest risk for their community was wildfires,” recalls Nikolakis. “And it was prophetic.”
Soon after, 2017 wildfires burned more than 500,000 hectares in the Chilcotin Plateau that surrounds Yunesit’in.
“The fires almost took out their whole community, and had very dramatic impacts on their rights and title, because much of their land for hunting and subsistence has been decimated. You walk through those forests and there are no trees left,” says Nikolakis.
Nikolakis and Ross had begun looking for support to bring a firekeeper from Australia to B.C. when they first met in 2015 — but it was the 2017 fires that led to broad support for more proactive solutions.
Following consultation with the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in First Nations, Gathering Voices secured funding to bring over Victor Steffensen, an Australian firekeeper descended from the Tagalaka people of northern Queensland.
Steffensen flew out in 2019 to spend a month with a small group of trainees from the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in First Nations. Together, they implemented an initial pilot project with a small number of community members, which applied cultural burns to 30 hectares of land, resulting in what Nikolakis describes as immediate and visible benefits: reduced dry and dead brush, grasses and wood in the understory of the forest, and new plant growth.
Though COVID-19 disrupted the next phase of the project and prevented Steffensen from returning in 2020, the community used what they had learned to conduct cultural burns themselves, including a cultural burn jointly conducted with the BC Wildlife Service.
“In April 2021, we employed over 40 people in the community, and had our biggest burn yet,” says Nikolakis.
The project has employed more than 50 people to apply cultural burns, providing an opportunity for sustainable economic development. And while fire management has been a male-dominated profession, the program has included folks of all genders as well as ages. Nikolakis notes that kids as young as eight and Elders in their 80s have participated in cultural burns.
Now, says Nikolakis, they’re putting research infrastructure in place to measure the impacts.
“We’re looking at the effects of these cultural burns on the landscape,” he says. “So we have a camera network to document how it influences the movement of animals, like moose and deer, on the landscape.”
The team is evaluating the impacts on forest health, as well as measuring their emissions. They plan to calculate the difference between those emissions and what an unmitigated wildfire would otherwise produce, with the goal of providing carbon credits that can finance the growth of similar programs across B.C.
“First Nations are the most vulnerable people to wildfire, across Canada. It doesn’t make sense that they’re not empowered, significantly, to use their own techniques and knowledge to prevent these catastrophic fires,” says Nikolakis.
“It’s such a vast job, and it would take hundreds of years to do prescribed burning across all the areas that we need to across B.C. And we need all the people power we can get to rise up and tackle this wildfire challenge.”
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