In 2017, a mega-fire season devastated thick, lush
forests in British Columbia and threatened settlements and towns. The
flames also spurred a shift in public understanding of how climate
change is affecting the frequency and intensity of forest fires.
The Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in First Nations saw a warning in the
fires that threatened their communities and began a plan to revitalize
traditional fire management on the Tsilqot’in Traditional Territory.
Last summer, after a year of consultation with elders and community
members, their pilot project took off: they set fire to nearly 75 acres,
guided by an Indigenous fire expert from Australia.
Recent studies show that incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge
in land management schemes is key to strengthening bonds between humans
and nature. Particularly in Canada, where public rhetoric and
institutional policy have openly adopted measures to work toward
“reconciliation,” fire management has come to the fore. Reconciliation,
in this instance, means not only expanding decision-making powers, but
questioning conceptions of what’s best when it comes to land health.
This can often mean slight shifts in traditional definitions of
sustainability and conservation, and a broader acceptance of what it may
mean to protect nature itself: like letting it burn.
In practice, it’s led to increased investment from the federal
government at every stage of the fire prevention-to-burning process.
Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan pledged $47 million in
funding for First Nations through the FireSmart program.
In Alberta, researchers are documenting cultural heritage and
scientific data to better understand how fires were traditionally
managed in the southern Rocky Mountains. Ontario’s Pikangikum First
Nation is engaging elders and their oral histories in fire management
planning for more than 3 million acres of boreal forest. The federal
agency that manages Canada’s national parks is considering how best to
“reunite” fire and landscape, and has credited Indigenous people with
maintaining these systems before European settlers arrived. Still,
adopting traditional knowledge into colonial systems may not go
After their small controlled burn in the summer of 2019, the bands
involved in the Tsilhqot’in pilot project reported new and resurging
undergrowth where the fire licked, as well as an overall decrease in the
amount of fuel that could ignite the next time fire nears. Their next
steps will involve developing a system of carbon emissions monitoring,
and implementing traditional wildfire management programs at a larger