Russell Myers Ross

2024 Firebreak Award
Russell Myers Ross, Program Lead, Yunesit'in Qwen (fire) Stewardship, Yunesit'in Russell completed a Masters degree in Indigenous Governance before returning home to Tsilhqot’in territory.  He was elected Chief of Yunesit’in Government before the age of 30, serving two terms (2012-2020). Russell has exercised compassionate and effective leadership through many triumphs and challenges – including the 2017 wildfires that surrounded his Yunesit’in community and devastated much of their territory (totalling 545,151 hectares, the largest fire recorded in British Columbia to that point).  As Chief, Russell led, managed and supported his community through evacuation and emergency management. Subsequently, his response and pro-active initiatives included analysing lessons learned (The Fires Awakened Us, 2018), and taking action to manage wildfire risk while building community response capacity.  Most significantly, Russell responded to the wildfires with long-term vision – initiating a program to revitalize Indigenous fire stewardship (cultural burning) practices as a way of healing people and restoring the land, together. With Russell’s leadership, Yunesit’in are reintroducing Indigenous fire stewardship as a form of healing and restoration.  Since Tsilhqot’in traditional burning practices were long suppressed, Russell partnered with Gathering Voices Society (GVS) to help Yunesit’in learn from Australian Indigenous fire keeper Victor Steffensen, and revitalize local cultural burning knowledge and practice. Russell has successfully built an inclusive, effective program, engaging community members in cultural burning every Spring and Fall for 5 years - gradually increasing the area covered and refining their techniques (450ha in 2023).  Driven by collective processes and elder input, this Indigenous-led fire stewardship approach, implemented by Russell, strengthens Indigenous knowledge and practices: deliberately dismantling gender barriers, and mobilizing elders, language experts, and youth in the field. Strategically, Russell takes a uniquely creative, innovative approach to the Yunesit’in qwen stewardship program.  Partnering with GVS and the University of British Columbia, he is building an interdisciplinary research and monitoring program to assess and document the effects of cultural burning on plants and wildlife, carbon storage, and community health. Challenges and controversy related to this work are considerable, including: community trauma triggered by the 2017 wildfires; systemic barriers from regulatory agencies and colonial government; and ongoing restrictions on Indigenous rights and access to their own lands.  Russell consistently offers to collaborate with provincial government agencies, while negotiating inflexible bureaucracy and culturally inappropriate regulations. Upholding his people’s right to manage and care for their territory in their own way, Russell is growing an inclusive and transformative fire program, building community strength with integrity, respect, and a determined clarity of vision. The success of Russell’s approach and management is evident in the program’s impeccable safety record, effective stewardship, and community crew members who return year after year, expressing enjoyment of the work and appreciation of his leadership.  The lasting effects of his program management are already showing on the landscape, and in the positive effects that involvement in the work has on people’s lives.