Big Idea: To fight wildfires, bring back preventative burns

For centuries, Indigenous fire keepers kept forests clear of fuel. It’s time to fight fire with fire once again.

Joe Gilchrist
Content image
“Cultural burns incinerate debris dropped on the ground by dead trees—fuel just waiting for a spark.” (Illustration by Pete Ryan)

I grew up in Skeetchestn, a small riverside community northwest of Kamloops, British Columbia, in a home with no running water and no power. My family used fire for everything: to cook, to heat bathwater and to dry our clothes. Fire also served a ceremonial purpose for my people—in sweat lodges, at funerals and as a spiritual offering. Elders would often tell me stories about how, for centuries, Indigenous people across Canada set fire to the earth, so it would look after us in return. These cultural burns, as we call them, were a tool for land management. In the cool of early spring and late fall, fire keepers would light controlled burns using pitchwood or handfuls of long grass, renewing the soil where berries and other medicines grew and cleansing forests of invasive plant and animal species. Most importantly, these burns would incinerate needles, branches, seeds and other debris dropped on the ground by dead and dying trees—fuel just waiting for a spark.

After settlers arrived out west in the 18th century, British Columbia became the first province to outlaw cultural burning, kicking off a countrywide colonial policy of Smokey Bear–style suppression that has only grown more dangerous over time. By banning a practice proven to remove fuel build-up on a regular basis, governments have made larger areas of the country more susceptible to catastrophic wildfires. I’ve worked as an emergency firefighter with the B.C. Wildfire Service since 1982, and back then, I regularly fought fires that averaged about 100 to 200 hectares in size. By 1994, fires spanning well over 20,000 hectares were burning in the province every year, and in 2017, during a very hot summer, a million hectares went up in flames when three massive blazes converged on the Chilcotin Plateau.

I don’t need to remind anyone how bad 2023 has been: fires burning on both coasts due to unseasonably hot temperatures, 120,000 people forced to evacuate, and ecosystems devastated by warming ponds, sterilized soil and insect infestations. On top of that, 80 per cent of Indigenous people—who support the preventative application of fire—are located in Canadian forests that are now prone to wildfire. Canada needs to bring the good kind of burn back.

In recent years, federal and provincial governments have made some attempts to revive cultural fires, which are protected under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. Last year, the B.C. government designated $1.2 million for burn projects, and the provincial Ministry of Forests has worked with First Nations in the Fraser Canyon, the Okanagan and other areas on Indigenous-led wildfire-management initiatives. However, anyone who wants to perform a burn off-reserve—also known as a “prescribed” burn—must apply for a permit with the Ministry of Forests, or the equivalent in their province.

Months or years can pass before a permit (or “prescription”) is approved. It takes time to identify an area, set a date, coordinate equipment and develop a safe-burn plan with the ministry—all of which are required steps. Because of this lag, spring and fall burn windows are often missed, and the number of prescribed burns in British Columbia has dropped significantly in the last decade, to 10,000 hectares annually. (For comparison, in the ’70s and ’80s, 100,000 hectares burned there each year.) This is not enough, especially compared to the four to six million hectares prescriptively burned annually in the U.S. Not only do agencies need to expedite the approvals process, they should also address the public perception that all smoke is bad. Complaints from neighbouring communities can shut down burns, even ones that are fully permitted.

Forestry agencies, businesses, local fire departments and governments will need to collaborate with Indigenous knowledge keepers to conduct widespread prescribed burns across Canada in a safe way. Some locations will need to be logged, which will require heavy, expensive machinery and buy-in from commercial partners. Going forward, urban planners will need to consult with local First Nations about how to properly fireproof cities. For example, dense subdivisions shouldn’t be built beside sun-exposed hills of deciduous forest, and there should be multiple roads in and out of each town, in case evacuation becomes necessary.

Partnerships are already forming, but they need to happen faster. After B.C.’s disastrous 2017 wildfire season, the federal and provincial governments signed the Collaborative Emergency Management Agreement with the Tŝilhqot’in Nation in the B.C. Interior. The document, which is the first of its kind in Canada, promises to develop best practices for fire management with Tŝilhqot’in communities. Also in 2017, I co-founded the Interior Salish Fire Keepers Society, a group of roughly 30 experts—hunters, medicine people, firefighters and more—who are spreading awareness of controlled burns. In the last six months, I’ve been in contact with organizations like Parks Canada and Natural Resources Canada to discuss how the practice can make Canadian communities safer. The Interior Salish group, meanwhile, is developing a curriculum to teach the basics of fire education to Indigenous schoolchildren on reserves, from kindergarten to Grade 12: lessons cover safety measures, how to apply fire to the land, and our history.

In B.C., less than 250 years have passed since first contact with settlers, so some knowledge of our traditional lands remains. In the Maritimes, it’s been around 600 years; our brothers and sisters have been dealing with the disconnection brought by colonialism for much longer. Hopefully, some of them can still tell you how the grasslands should be burned every two years, aspen and poplar trees every four and high-elevation spruce and balsam every hundred. I imagine that many cannot. Governments should fund educational programs to make sure this knowledge stays alive across Canada. With any luck, this will create a pipeline of young Indigenous minds into university-level environmental science programs or firefighting careers, reinstating our presence in an area where we have always been leaders.

Much of the best wisdom for how to create a wildfire-free future—without sick, overgrown forests covered in fuel—can be found by looking to the past. My grandmother used to tell me that if you can’t walk on the land barefoot, you know something is wrong. She had the foresight to think about how to keep the earth healthy for the ones who weren’t born yet, as did fire keepers from all over the world. Modern fire-prevention programs that manage fuel with cultural burning have halved the rate of wildfires in Australia’s Aboriginal lands. Studies have also shown that regular burns in the world’s boreal forests—270 million hectares of which Canada houses—can reduce wildfire risk for decades.

Without more burns, the future is easy to predict. We are seeing warning signs already: clear summer days blanketed by clouds of smoke that make it hard to leave your house. Halifax on fire. Giant spruce, fir and red cedar trees—300 feet tall and 15 feet wide—lining B.C.’s western coast, their bases covered in layers of dried-up moss, just waiting for lightning to strike. I hope wisdom prevails and the suppression of fires stops. The land wants to burn. We can’t fight against mother nature and win.

Joe Gilchrist is co-founder of the Interior Salish Fire Keepers Society. He is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band in central B.C.