Fire ecologists and Indigenous groups say bureaucratic provincial barriers are hindering their ability to perform prescribed burns and cultural burns that could reduce the fuel load for wildfires in British Columbia’s forests.
“It’s as simple as lighting a match,” said former Yuneŝit’in government chief Russell Myers Ross, who leads the community’s fire management program. “But the way the province deals with things, they want heavy equipment on the site. They want big hoses, they want a lot of equipment and high-priced personnel.”
Prescribed burns remove hazardous fuel from the forest via controlled, low-intensity burns, while cultural burns are considered a sacred Indigenous practice, in which communities use low-intensity fire as a form of ecological stewardship.
Support for the two practices has grown in recent years as B.C. and other provinces grapple with more extreme fires.
Following the province’s 2017 wildfire season, a report by former B.C. cabinet minister George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman recommended that “B.C. increase the use of traditional and prescribed burning” as a means of fuel mitigation, and that it do so “in partnership with First Nations.”
But while Myers Ross and others say progress has been made since the report was released, they also say change isn’t coming fast enough, citing high costs, overlapping jurisdictions, complex paperwork and tight timelines that often feel at odds with Indigenous philosophies and practices.
In a statement, a government spokesperson said that the Ministry of Forests supports “traditional and cultural burning” and has “assisted many First Nations across the province in this practice.”
“Prior to conducting any prescribed burn, the B.C. Wildfire Service considers vegetation type, terrain, fire behaviour, temperature, humidity, wind conditions, and the venting index. The size and intensity of prescribed burns are carefully planned and controlled to meet land management objectives…. All prescribed burns must comply with the Environmental Management Act and the Open Burning Smoke Control Regulation. This helps minimize the amount of smoke generated.”
Myers Ross, who has led two controlled burns, says he’s experienced policy-makers’ fear of fire first-hand.
“Closer to when we were about to start [the burn] they were like, ‘Maybe you just do it on your reserve, not on Crown land this year,'” he said.
Fire suppression vs. fire management
Many of those interviewed say B.C. remains more focused on fire suppression — the act of putting out fires — than mitigation techniques like controlled burns, despite growing evidence that prescribed fires pose low risk.
“There’s been a lot of studies showing that fire escape — the probability of fires getting out of control from prescribed burning — is very, very low,” said Kira Hoffman, post-doctoral researcher with UBC’s faculty of forestry.
“The risk of having a catastrophic fire in peak fire season, when it’s really dry and hot, is much higher…. There’s so much fuel on the landscape.”
Still, she and others say suppression is necessary to avoid the present threats to communities, forests and infrastructure from extreme wildfires.
“For the summer that’s pretty much all you can do, attack it,” said Joe Gilchrist of the Salish Fire Keepers Society. “In the springtime, in the fall time there’s work that’s done … getting rid of forest fuel … so that when a fire does happen in the summer there are controllable spaces.”
Suppression, he went on, “is really unhealthy. You can’t just burn it once and expect it to be OK for 50 years. It’s got to be maintained.”
Reclaiming lost knowledge
For fire research scientist Amy Cardinal Christianson, the barriers around prescribed and cultural burning reflect decades’ worth of colonialism, which she says prioritizes Western science over Indigenous knowledge, like when First Nations fire practitioners are required to get government accreditation.
“When European settlement happened, they … brought in European ideas of forest management…. Fire was seen as a bad thing that needed to be stopped … not realizing that the forests need fire to be healthy,” said Cardinal Christianson, who is Métis from Treaty 8 territory.
The Ministry of Forests said in a statement that a draft action plan, written under B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, proposes the province partner with First Nations to “further support the reintroduction of traditional and cultural burning on the land base as part of wildfire prevention and land management.”
Myers Ross, meanwhile, says controlled burns are a way for Indigenous communities to regain knowledge lost to colonialism.
“This is something that has been done by our ancestors for hundreds of years, if not longer,” he said. “It’s a real chance for us to regain that practice.”