Fire engulfinga line of trees at the top of a hill

Cultural burning holds important place in wildfire mitigation

By Shari Narine, Windspeaker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As the forest fire season in Canada continues to start earlier each year, destroying more and more hectares of wooded area, a new study recommends removing barriers so Indigenous-led cultural burning practices can be used as prominently as the western way of fire suppression is today.

“Despite growing concerns over wildfire risk and agency-stated intentions to establish Indigenous Peoples as partners in wildfire management, power imbalances still exist,” reads a report recently released by the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry.

The Right to burn: barriers and opportunities for Indigenous-led fire stewardship in Canadawas published in FACETS, the official journal of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science.

“The future and coexistence with fire in Canada needs to be a shared responsibility and led by Indigenous Peoples within their territories,” the report reads.

Amy Cardinal Christianson, is Métis from Owl River in the Fort McMurray area of Alberta and is one of the authors of the UBC report.

“One of the main reasons why many people, including my family, stopped cultural burning (is) because of the threat of either fine or imprisonment,” she said.

This need for a shift to Indigenous-led cultural burning, with one of its purposes being fire prevention, is emphasized with some stark statistics: 60 per cent of Indigenous communities in Canada are in remote and forested areas and Indigenous peoples are 30 per cent more likely to be impacted, including displaced, by wildfires.

It’s not ideal, said Christianson, but the report looks at how to fit cultural burning into the western system instead of allowing cultural burning to stand on its own.

“The difficult thing is we know that all of Canada is Indigenous territory…(and) there’s always going to be that conflict with colonial agencies that oversee the land. The idea for this (report) is to make recommendations toward the starting place where nations can start to really bring fire back on the land and then begin to take on leadership opportunities,” said Christianson.

The report identifies five barriers to the return of cultural burning as an accepted method to prevent fires: perceptions, authority and jurisdiction; governance, laws and management; access, accreditation and training; liabilities and insurance; and capacity and resources.

To address these barriers, the report calls for:

  • the establishment of a National Indigenous Wildfire Stewardship working group;
  • the development of a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous fire practitioners and researchers within each province and territory to identify key policy barriers for reintroducing cultural burning;  
  • giving equal priority to Indigenous knowledge;
  • training and accrediting firefighters outside of wildfire management agencies; and
  • increasing financial support for Indigenous fire stewardship.

These barriers and the calls to action underscore the fact that “in Canada right now fire management is all the western system,” said Christianson.

Part of that western system, she adds, conflates prescribed burns with cultural burning, with western agencies claiming they are taking into account Indigenous knowledge. But the two are not the same.

“For Indigenous people, because the objective around cultural burning is so different, you’re not achieving the same thing. Yes, they’re putting fire on the landscape, but for many Indigenous nations its not being done in the right way or for the right reasons,” said Christianson.

While cultural burning does provide a means to control and suppress fire, it’s also a practise that is used by Indigenous peoples “to maintain desirable ecosystem structures and enhance diversity and productivity of species for food, medicine and ceremony,” reads the report.

“Indigenous-led fire management…is looking wholistically at the problem of fire and what’s needed from all angles and a big part of that is the pre-fire stuff, the cultural burning and the landscape management. It’s looking at water and other things in our nations; just the health of our territories,” said Christianson.

While it will take time to remove the barriers identified in the report, Christianson does say that in the 10 years she has been a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, the past five years have seen some movement.

“Since we’ve been having some more extreme fire events in Canada, I think people start looking for other solutions so…there has been a lot more interest in Indigenous knowledge and cultural burning practices,” she said.

“We are seeing some changes happening but I think for Indigenous people it’s never enough. We always want more. We’re looking out five to 10 years, but at the same time in the face of climate change, I think for many nations that isn’t fast enough. Our forests in our territories are being threatened now.”

Christianson points to a report that came from the United Nations in February, which she also co-authored.

Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires calls for governments to shift their spending from fighting fires to preventing fires. The “fire-ready formula” outlines a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach, with two-thirds of funding devoted to planning, preventing, preparedness and recovery, and only one-third to fighting fires.

The report also says that by the end of the century, the number of wildfires will have risen by 50 per cent.

“The science shows that we need more good fire on the ground. So it’s time we actually start looking at addressing these things to move barriers out of the way. In the paper that’s what the calls to action are really all about, trying to start moving some of these barriers so that communities are able to burn in the ways that they want,” said Christianson.

Top photo credit: Burning forest – Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

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