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Cultural burning has long been a tradition in Canada and other parts of the world. But practices – often driven by policy – have changed over time, sometimes amid frustration and controversy. At the IAWF Fire & Climate 2022 conference in Pasadena in May 2022, Canadian Brendan Mercer took delegates on a journey through cultural burning and traditional practices of First Nations peoples, in parts of the beautiful province of British Columbia.

Mercer lives and works in the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Traditional Territory in Kamloops. His position is with the First Nations Emergency Services Society (FNESS) as the manager of the decision support department. FNESS is a non-profit governed by a First Nations board of directors, which collaborates with communities on various emergency management initiatives to improve overall health and safety.

Mercer’s presentation focused on the impacts of wildfires and traditional use of fire by Indigenous Peoples and their First Nations communities.

Canadian Brendan Merer talks about the importance of cultural burning in British Columbia during the IAWF Fire & Climate 2022 conference in Pasadena in May 2022. Photo by Joaquin Ramirez.

FNESS supports all First Nations communities across the province with emergency-management related services, including wildfire mitigation and climate adaptation initiatives. FNESS is working on solutions in British Columbia that integrate traditional ecological knowledge and western science using interactive decision support tools, which facilitate multi-agency information sharing to support integrated fire management planning.

There are 204 First Nations communities in British Columbia, each with unique risks and highly valued resources. First Nations Peoples have faced many challenges, barriers, and limitations in emergency management. Climate change and improper forest management contributed to the worst wildfire season on record in British Columbia in 2021.

Historically, Indigenous communities used fire as a tool to enhance the environment and improve their way of living, including food gathering and hunting. These practices were largely eliminated over the years because of laws put into place restricting Indigenous rights to practice traditional burning.

The traditional ecological knowledge of First Nations is part of the solution to the wildfire problem as well as the use of science and integrated fire management planning. Historically many areas would have burned once every 30 years, reducing fuel loading, understory vegetation and tree densities, which helped to limit large high severity wildfires.

In Pasadena, Mercer spoke about his great-grandfather, who used to go out and strategically burn certain areas to enrich the fruits and berries and enhance the growth of grass so the game could have better feed. This wise use of fire enhanced wildlife populations such as moose, deer, bighorn sheep, blue grouse, and porcupine and made for a more biodiverse forest.

What follows is an edited and synopsis of Mercer’s presentation.

The Importance Of Fuels Mitigation

In June 2021, an intense heat dome weather pattern settled over British Columbia. Lytton First Nation band members indicated that it was 52 C that day (126 F) with an extremely low relative humidity of eight per cent. On June 30, a wildfire ignited near the town of Lytton and spread rapidly; pushed by high winds, the fire turned into a major conflagration. Lytton First Nation evacuated the village, as did several other nearby First Nations. The Lytton Creek wildfire destroyed structures on several First Nations reserves and the majority of the village of Lytton. The village of Lytton is in the mountains of southern British Columbia, in a heavily forested region. The Lytton Creek fire burned a total of about 84,000 hectares (207,000 acres).

After the flames subsided an evaluation of burn severity was completed. There was a substantial area impacted by high-severity burning, which directly or indirectly impacted the First Nations reserves, especially watersheds adjacent to villages. Mary Louie, a Syilx Nation elder, sometimes refers to water as Mother Earth’s blood, because water can provide the necessary physical, mental and spiritual nourishment to her children, therefore it’s necessary to keep water sources clean.

In past decades FNESS has worked in partnership with several First Nations communities, including Nicomen First Nation village, to complete tree thinning and fuel reduction projects. All the structures in that village survived the Lytton wildfire.

Some areas higher up the mountainsides that were not treated displayed patches of high intensity fire, which destroyed entire rooting systems and impacted soil stability. These high severity wildfires can also reduce the water absorption capability across the landscape, resulting in more water flowing over land. About 150 hectares (370 acres) of fuels mitigation had been completed in past years, near the Nicomen village, and these efforts appear to have made a difference. The fire response team used these areas to conduct back burns because team members felt confident the fuels mitigation would reduce fire behavior.

Efforts to conduct fuels mitigation are sometimes hampered by funding limitations, internal capacity, and lack of collaborative efforts to effectively share data and information. It took the people of Nicomen more than 10 years to complete their fuels-mitigation projects, and it still was not enough to prevent long-term impacts to the community. There were no houses lost In Nocomen during the Lytton wildfire, but the entire community was evacuated three times since the summer of 2021 and now has a much higher risk of a landslide.

Heavy rains in the fall of 2021 over the Lytton Creek wildfire area brought devastating landslides, floods and debris flows, and impacted water quality. These postfire events completely undercut some of the bridges accessing the community; this impacted key travel and escape routes for villages in the burn area.

Losses of traditional foods and other long-term impacts to communities may not be talked about as frequently as wildfire suppression related costs, because these things are typically hard to account for. Some reports indicate that British Columbia spent more than $3 billion on wildfire suppression in about 15 years, and only $73 million on mitigation of fire effects. Essentially, taxpayers and private residents are on the hook for many recovery costs, which makes it so that the poor and minorities often bear the largest burden. To put it simply, more fire prevention and fuels mitigation projects on a much bigger scale will help to reduce the risk to communities.

FNESS provides programs and services that utilize innovative technologies, which strengthen prevention and mitigation activities across the province. Wildfire mitigation projects have reduced the risk to communities, and better protected ecosystems. Benefits from fuels mitigation projects and prescribed fire that First Nations have implemented include:

• Reducing insect pests and invasive plants

• Improved forage for game animals, and better hunting opportunities

• Crop management – burning to improve yields of raspberries, strawberries, and huckleberries and facilitate gathering acorns

• Insect collection – some tribes collect and roast grasshoppers and crickets, or use fire to collect honey and pandora moths

• Pest management – burning can be used to reduce rodent, snake, ticks, black flies, and mosquito populations

• Range management – large scale burning was used to keep reduce encroaching vegetation, thus improving the ecosystem for many species

• Risk Reduction – better protection of communities and special areas from wildfire by pre burning around them

• Travel corridors were cleared for safety and improved visibility

• Improved physical and mental health: Activities involved in Indigenous land management such as cultural burning are seen to enhance well-being, as well as physical and mental health. These practices empower people and strengthens their sense of identity and give the ability to foster important relationships with members of their community, in addition to providing access to traditional foods and promoting physical activity.

The Power Of Place

Mercer’s presentation about the challenges First Nations face from large wildfires that threaten their communities and homes was very compelling.

The Lytton Creek fire not only destroyed homes in First Nations villages, but the post-fire impacts from floods and landslides caused considerable damage to structures and highways, and limited people’s access to their communities.

As a listener, it was fascinating how this presentation depicted the deep relationship between First Nations and the traditional use of fire to enhance and improve their environment and reduce the chance of high severity wildfires.

First Nations have been planning and implementing fuels mitigation projects, using state-of-the-art planning tools. The importance of collaboration among organizations such as FNESS, First Nations, and other organizations was emphasized. There is a need for integrated wildfire management planning that incorporates all the land values into one easy-to-use database that can be utilized by multiple agencies to support planning efforts. Interactive databases should be shareable by nations, agencies, and governments, which will improve planning initiatives.

Mercer’s talk gave thought-provoking insight into managing fire in the deep woods of British Columbia and celebrates the power of place and landscapes.

Mercer’s presentation included details about the Lytton Creek fire that devastated a community in the summer of 2021.

Episodes of flames in the forest are a natural and recurring event and learning more about traditional Indigenous practices will benefit us all.

Rich McCrea worked 32 years in fire management and forestry with federal agencies in the United States. Outfitted with a degree in forestry, McCrae started his career as a seasonal employee with the forest service as a forestry technician and member of the Helena Interagency Hotshot Crew, then moved on to permanent positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a forester and fire management officer at three different field locations and at the National Interagency Fire Center. The last 12 years McCrae has worked as a fire management consultant and a freelance writer and historian.