Worsening forest fires rekindle interest in traditional management of indigenous forests

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Wildfire experts say British Columbia needs to trigger many more prescribed burns, like the way Indigenous communities have managed forests, to mitigate the risk of massive fires.

“We’re not burning as much as we should,” said Bob Gray, fire ecologist and fire leader, of Chilliwack, B.C., who consults with local, provincial, state and tribal governments in Canada and the United States. United States.

British Columbia is expected to burn tens of thousands of acres each year to reduce dense forests filled with fallen branches and leaves, Gray said, but the Forestry Ministry said it burned an average of 5,000 hectares per year in 2010 to 2019.


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As a member of a US Forest Service research team in Washington state, Gray studied what forests looked like and the behavior of wildfires when native burning was prevalent, he said in an interview.

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Discussing with native elders when and where they burned, examining early aerial photographs, and comparing this information with physical signs of tree fires, reveals a “mosaic” on the landscape with more burnt plots. small, meadows, taller and more spaced trees and various vegetation, he said.

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Gray compared forest fires to contagion that can be mitigated by inoculation.

“There was so much burning and it resulted in all kinds of different types of vegetation, and a lot of them just couldn’t handle the fire very well,” he said. “And so this historic landscape has been essentially vaccinated against large-scale fires.”

The wildfire that destroyed much of Lytton, B.C. last month highlighted the government’s strategies to prevent and manage the increasingly intense wildfires that Gray says do not will only get worse with climate change.

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Amy Cardinal Christianson, a fire researcher with the Canadian Forest Service, said the fuel reduction was a “benefit” of Aboriginal burning, but was motivated by cultural goals – often to improve harvesting or harvest conditions. berry hunting.

Setting a meadow on fire in early spring to burn dead grass, for example, could produce healthy vegetation that would attract moose and other animals to the area, said Christianson, a Métis from Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta.

Cultural burning was a family practice, and in some Indigenous communities, fire maintenance was a specific expertise and role passed down from generation to generation, she said.

Fire keepers are looking for clues, such as plump spruce needles or berries growing in the spring, to determine if it’s time to start a fire, she said.

The settlers brought a European mindset for land management that suppressed the fire, allowing trees and fuel to encroach on the “mosaic,” Christianson said, adding that ancient natives remember people were fined or jailed for triggering cultural burns.

The suppression of the fires followed the settlers west, she said, and regular cultural fires still occurred in the most remote areas of British Columbia until the 1950s and 1960s.

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Indigenous communities still express barriers to cultural burning, Christianson said, noting the lengthy approval processes and lack of sustained funding to support knowledge transfer between elders and a new generation of firekeepers.

“That’s where part of the frustration lies,” she said. “That we have to scale the cultural burn down to a much bigger scale than, you know, a burn here, there. “


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The cultural burn is based on careful observation and knowledge of the landscape, she said, and approval delays could mean missing a good opportunity to burn.

Some Indigenous firefighters feel they shouldn’t have to get approval for a “colonial system,” Christianson noted. “They feel like they should be able to have their own certification within their communities, on the burn.”

Russell Myers Ross echoed that sentiment. Former elected leader of government Yunesit’in is working to rekindle the cultural fire after devastating fires swept through the Tsilhqot’in Nation territory west of Williams Lake, British Columbia, in 2017.

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“For me, I think the frustration is that as long as you have people who know the earth very well and have experience with fire, we shouldn’t necessarily go through all these hoops to try to get the information. identification, ”he said. mentionned.

Gray said there should be a different path in B.C.’s approval system for low-risk cultural burns, such as those in the spring around riparian areas or at high elevations, where there are still moisture in the soil.

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The province has a “huge capacity problem” when it comes to funding and managing prescribed burns, Gray added, noting the lack of certified “burn leaders.”

The reintroduction of cultural fire is identified as a priority in British Columbia’s draft action plan for the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

British Columbia’s Community Resilience Investment Program, established in 2018, calls for the Provincial Forest Fire Service to work with First Nations and others to reduce the risk of wildfires, including providing funding for fuel management efforts, the Forestry Ministry said.

The province has also partnered with the First Nations Emergency Services Society, which works with the wildfire service to support First Nations interested or involved in cultural and prescribed burn programs, the ministry said in an email.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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