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Using fire to heal the land — and mitigate BC wildfires

FILE PHOTO - A prescribed burn in a Kamloops nature park.

Gitanyow Elder Darlene Vegh drips fire onto a patch of dry leaves, moss and twigs on a ridge above Xsit’ax (Kitwanga River) on Wilp Gwaas Hlaam lands in northwest B.C.

It’s a clear spring day a few weeks after the winter snowmelt exposed the forest floor. The orange light of the little flames dancing along the ground is soft and warm against the deep shadows cast by the trees. Vegh’s fire starts the day’s cultural burn, an Indigenous-led practice that brings fire back to the land in a good way.

Fire — called lakw in Simalgyax, the language spoken in Gitanyow — was used on the landscape for thousands of years as a tool to manage resources like food and medicinal plants and the animals that eat them. But under colonization, Indigenous use of fire was banned — suppressed along with every other aspect of cultural life. As governments enacted genocidal policies like the Indian Act, they used fire for nefarious purposes, burning down Indigenous dwellings as they forcibly removed communities from their lands and moved them onto reserves.

Vegh is from Wilp Wii Litsxw, a Gitanyow house group. She’s a member of the Gitanyow Lax’yip Guardians, a small group of fish and wildlife monitors known as the “eyes and ears” of the territory, or lax’yip. When the guardians surveyed the ridge to map the area for cultural values prior to the burn, she says they discovered seven house pits and dozens of cache pits, depressions in the ground where homes or food storage buildings once stood. She wondered why they didn’t see cedar boards — remnants of house construction — or other evidence of ancestral use of the land.

“I think they were all burned by the state, the churches or the Indian agents, when the Indian reserve systems were established — 1918 would have been a devastating year for ancestral habitation sites,” she says, referring to the time when settlers moved en masse onto Gitanyow lands, enabled by an amendment to the Indian Act that allowed expropriation of reserve land for farmers and ranchers.

The contrast between using fire to destroy Indigenous Peoples and using fire to bring life back to the land could not be more striking.

Cultural burning in spring after the snowmelt and in fall before the rains stimulates plant growth and opens the land to wildlife. On Gitanyow lax’yip, the objectives of the burn include restoring for haast (fireweed), Ts’anksa gaak (nodding onion) and berries like ‘miiyahl (low-bush blueberry), T’imi’yt (Kinnikinnik) and gam (Saskatoon). As these plant species fill in after a burn, wildlife like bears and moose move in to eat the verdant regrowth. Using fire to clear tangled shrubs and provide paths through thick stands of trees also supports access for community members to harvest and hunt and visit culturally important sites.

Setting fires to fight fires may seem counterintuitive as wildfires across Canada increase in size and intensity, but the method is backed by decades of research and on-the-ground trials — and thousands of years of Indigenous science. In B.C., the government’s wildfire department is teaming up with First Nations to support cultural burns and other ways of using fire for the common good. Planned burns like the one on Gitanyow lands present a different way to think about fire and an opportunity to help meet the climate emergency head-on by mitigating the impacts of wildfires and restoring balance in forest ecosystems.

“This spring more than 30 burning projects have moved forward across the province, with the majority involving some kind of partnership with Indigenous communities,” Sarah Budd, a spokesperson with the BC Wildfire Service’s cultural and prescribed fire team, wrote in an email to The Narwhal.

“The way the BC Wildfire Service works with Indigenous communities to implement cultural or prescribed fire projects really depends on their capacity and interest in using fire on the land,” she continued. “Cultural burning can mean different things in different communities, and our goal is to meet them where they’re at, support the development of capacity, and work towards our shared goal of seeing more good fire used in B.C. for a range of stewardship objectives.”

On Gitanyow lax’yip, blackened trees are evidence fire was used decades ago, but those burns were done without government approval. With full support from the province, this year’s cultural burn signals a new chapter of collaboration between the nation and the province. Vegh compares it to the interconnected relationships between plants, animals and people. She smiles as she looks around at the wildland firefighters working on her homelands.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” she says.

‘We’re gaining momentum’: knowledge sharing and efficient fire practices

Vegh says her connections to the lax’yip were almost taken from her. Her mother was removed from the community at seven years old and taken to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital. She spent years locked in the institution and all ties to her lands, language, people and culture were severed. Vegh says her mom didn’t even know she was Gitanyow growing up. After years of working through trauma, she started piecing together the past that was stolen from her, eventually returning to the lax’yip and giving her daughter the life she never had.

“When I was eight years old, a mountain became my mentor, and I connected with the ancestors then and continued to maintain that relationship for over 60 years,” she says. “The ancestors taught me how we, as Indigenous people, used the land before contact. How the land was our ‘food table’ and how we used fire to manage food security and to maintain wildlife habitat. That is why fire is integral to my being — it’s the culmination of a lifetime of struggle to help heal the land, in hopes of healing the people.”

Led by the Simgigyet’m Gitanyow (Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs), the plan to bring cultural fire back to the land is guided by Gwelx ye’enst — the rights and responsibilities to sustainably pass on the land from one generation to the next — and part of the nation’s work to protect the territory. Vegh says she’s been waiting more than 30 years to see fire returned to Gitanyow lax’yip — and the land has been waiting far longer. She talks about depleted huckleberry patches, like a nearby spot that used to be one of her go-to locations for harvesting.

“That place has become non-productive, because of lack of fire,” she says. “The berries are still there but they’re small and sour. Some water and ash, that’s what they really need right now.”

In the burn site, it’s easy to see the effects of drought and decades of fire suppression. The few huckleberry bushes tucked in amongst the stands of trees are dry and scraggly and the land feels parched after a winter of little snow. The air is dusty and the forest floor crunches under the boots of the firefighters as they prepare for the fire.

Kevin Koch, a wildlife biologist who manages the guardians program for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, wipes the sweat from his face and says the long planning process felt at times like they’d never be able to burn. For more than a decade, the Simgigyet’m worked to develop and implement a detailed and comprehensive land-use plan to set the stage for the cultural burn. But it still took more than two years of navigating government policies and regulations to get their fire stewardship program approved.

“It felt like there were just too many hurdles,” he explains. “But now it’s like, okay, we can do it — and we’re gaining momentum, even in little ways, on a daily basis.”

Using the province’s terminology, the burn area is divided into sections: a black line separates the area of forest that will be lit, a wet line — a swath cut along the edge of the burn area — is doused with water and held by teams operating hoses and a green line designates the area to be protected from fire. Inside the black line, the teams will spread the fire evenly, adapting on the fly to evolving conditions and using the natural lie of the land to guide the flames.

Koch says with a few burn days under their belts they’re becoming familiar with how fire behaves on the land: how fuel and soil conditions affect its intensity and how it moves and interacts with the topography of the 240-hectare site. As the crews get a feel for what works, they’re adapting their techniques.

“We can just burn from the bottom now, instead of having to do it so slow,” he says. “Like yesterday, we just did the top and then lit it from the bottom.”

Jeff Walsh, an incident commander with the BC Wildfire Service based in Telkwa, says the partnership with Gitanyow is great for fire crews as it gives them a chance to “get their legs under them” early in the year. He explains spring is usually focused on training exercises so working on the cultural burn is an opportunity for firefighters to have some time on the fire line before they are deployed to respond to wildfires.

“It’s been really good to get everybody out,” he says. “It’s a win-win.”

He adds the public has been generally supportive, including local volunteer firefighters who visited and positive responses from onlookers driving past on the highway.

“We get a lot of thumbs up,” he says.

How Western science can complement Indigenous fire stewardship

Kira Hoffman, a fire ecologist who worked with Gitanyow to develop the burn plan and facilitate connections between the nation and the province, invited The Narwhal to join the team on the fire line for a day, to learn about good uses of fire and witness how it’s being applied to the land. A former wildland firefighter who lives with her family in Smithers, B.C., Hoffman has decades of experience with fire and is a passionate advocate for returning fire practices to First Nations communities.

Last summer, she watched from her deck as lightning sparked hundreds of blazes throughout the region, including one on a ridge a few kilometres away.

“In our current reality, almost no Canadian community is safe from wildfires or their cascading consequences,” she wrote for the Globe and Mail at the time. “This season is confirming something we’ve observed over the past decade — that wildfires are now commonly exceeding our capacity for suppression.”

Hoffman’s collaboration with the Simgigyet’m Gitanyow is deeply rooted in her understanding of and respect for the nation’s sovereignty. As a researcher with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and a National Geographic explorer, she recently secured funding to support Gitanyow in their goals and is continuing to research Indigenous-led fire stewardship. She’s published several peer-reviewed papers on the subject and regularly gives talks to everyone from elementary students to wildland firefighters and policy makers. Getting a project like the Gitanyow burn off the ground isn’t easy. Because reintroducing cultural burning to Indigenous lands in the northwest is so new, she says everyone involved is learning together and sharing knowledge throughout the process.

Early in the day, while the firefighters run their chainsaws to cut a fire break and drag heavy hoses up through the thick bush in preparation for the burn, Hoffman pushes through a tangle of chest-deep shrubs on a steep slope at one end of the ridge. She’s looking for a suitable spot to set up test plots so she and provincial fire technician Milo Bookout can collect data and monitor the fire’s behaviour. She stops in a small stand of aspen.

“We’re putting in soil moisture meters and thermocouples, which are going to tell us exactly how hot the fire is when it comes through,” she says, looking around at the surrounding plants.

Before they start unpacking equipment, Bookout kneels down and feels the ground.

“I’m going to amend my earlier estimate on how much [the fire] is going to go in here,” he tells Hoffman. “I think it’s going to go, but it’s really damp immediately below the leaf litter. The leaf litter is fairly dry but it’s not crunchy.”

Hoffman pushes away the leaves to touch the ground underneath and agrees. After a quick discussion, they decide to move the plot location a few dozen metres away, to a south-facing area.

“Soil moisture is the biggest determinant of how successful a burn is going to be,” Hoffman says, explaining how that data, in conjunction with fire temperature and observations of how fire moves through an area, gives them a good idea of how the burn impacts plant life. “We’ll have a good estimate of what the soil was doing right at the burn time. If it’s too cold, our plants won’t respond. If it’s too warm, they’ll get fried.”

“Already I know we’re going to meet our objectives just by what’s going on,” she continues, kneeling down and digging a hole to place the instruments in. “You can feel it. After a while of feeling soil and feeling fuel and stepping on fuel and hearing fuel, you get a really good idea of what it’s going to do.”

Bookout says it’s not easy to develop that deep knowledge as a wildland firefighter. The wildfire service has too high a rate of turnover, he explains. It comes with the territory. Fighting fires is incredibly hard work, both physically and mentally, and the seasonal nature of the job tends to attract young people, who give it their all for a few years before transitioning out.

“You get a few people who really get tuned in,” he says. “I’ve had a couple of [supervisors] who were really good at fire — they could take a walk through and just know what was about to happen before a burn. But it’s not common anymore.”

That dynamic could change over the coming years. As B.C.’s wildfire season grows longer year after year and the organization works to address burnout and other mental health issues, firefighters are slowly seeing more opportunities to create a career within the wildfire service.

Using fire to meet cultural objectives

Sitting in the dirt at the top of the ridge before lighting the test burn, the ignition team shares snacks and sour candies and chats about the plan. Hoffman talks about how applying fire onto the landscape in specific patterns supports different cultural objectives.

“If you want to be enhancing soapberry, you do a chevron, which is essentially just a V, like this,” she says, drawing in the dirt with a stick.

“Imagine soapberries here,” she continues, adding a dot. “Then you do this V pretty close to it. It grabs the fire and pulls it in and then it gives more resonance time on the thing that you’re trying to get hotter. It’ll pull it in, get it into the roots more, which is what you want.”

Chewing on their candies, the firefighters watch with curiosity.

“Typically, we won’t do something like that because, really, a lot of our stuff is just fuel consumption,” Jared Stephens, a wildfire technician from Terrace, B.C., and the ignition lead for the day, says. “As long as we can get enough fire on the ground, that’s really the goal. A lot of times, it’s just working off topography.”

Burning out dead wood on a prescribed burn is hard work but it doesn’t require much finesse. Crews simply dot fire along the ground, adding as much or as little as they need to make sure the fire sweeps through the forest understory. Stephens says he’s happy to have his team try new patterns as long as it’s safe to do so.

“I’m open to anything down on the flats,” he tells Hoffman, his thumbs hooked into his belt. He adds the crews can play around with how they lay the fire according to the conditions.

“Sometimes we’ll just fuel out and dump everything in the middle. Get some real good heat, especially if you have a slight breeze coming towards the line you get that heat pocket causing convection to pull it in.”

Hoffman explains how different techniques help meet cultural objectives. The difference between a head fire and a backing fire is key, she says. A head fire is pushed by wind and moves quickly, while a backing fire stays low to the ground and creeps slowly against the wind.

“Backing fire is really good for herbaceous plants because it has more resonance time — it kind of moves like water through forests and stays on some things for longer. A head fire just rips through.”

Playing with fire

At Vegh’s feet, the fire creeps out in a circle, spreading and growing as it consumes the dry materials on the forest floor. Everything becomes still. Hoffman points to the ground, with a smile.

“It’s like a heart right now,” she says. “Do you see that?”

Vegh’s face lights up.

After watching the fire’s movements and observing the winds, Hoffman and Stephens agree its behaviour is consistent with their goals for the day. Stephens calls on the radio to say the burn is a go.

“Test burn is looking good, we’re going to continue with ignitions,” he says.

A few minutes later, everything changes.

Members of the ignition team walk along the ridge, pouring fire onto the ground with drip torches. The lines they lay on the landscape spread and join together and the fire starts to move quickly through the understory, building in intensity. It gets hot, fast. The air fills with smoke and the light becomes diffused as billowing clouds shroud the sun. Occasionally, a standing dead conifer candles, flames leaping up its trunk and into the sky with an otherworldly rushing sound. The fire starts to create its own wind, sucking in flames from newly laid lines and sending vast clouds out across the valley.

Even backlit by towering flames and shrouded by smoke, the scene feels calm and controlled. As the firefighters move along the ridge, painting the understory with flames, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone shares a fluency and familiarity with how fire behaves. It’s as though they’ve all learned to speak a language of heat and sound and sensation. The coordination of their movements is reminiscent of a team sport, like soccer or rugby — except the ball is fire.

The team brings the growing blaze closer to one of Hoffman’s test plots, its edges marked by pink flagging tape, and Koch works with Stephens to strategize.

“Maybe we’ll get a strip — like a 10-metre strip — in behind this little hill here,” Stephens says, pointing. The idea is to let the fire creep over the site, lingering on the vegetation and penetrating the soil.

“Yeah, maybe just a little bit back from the ribbon and then hopefully it’ll just draw in,” Koch agrees.

Behind them, the fire continues to build. Occasionally members of the ignition team disappear in the thick smoke, reappearing moments later ghostlike and silhouetted by flames as the winds shift. They proceed through the various sections with ease, calmly bringing walls of flame through the forest. Up at the fire break, holding crews use hoses to douse the surrounding trees and undergrowth.

Time stretches and loses meaning. An hour — or three — passes. The flames continue moving through the forest. As the fire sweeps through and around the trees and the smoke clears, the land is left a deep, rich black. Gone is the tangled brown of the dry understory. Aside from the odd standing dead tree left charred and smoking, destined to fall in the next windstorm, most of the trees stand strong, the rich browns and creamy whites of their barks glowing under the smoke-obscured sun.

Much later, Vegh watches from the highway as the ignition crews prepare to light the final sections of fire in the lowlands beside the road. Her eyes shine in the flickering light as the flames dance and crackle in the distance.

“It really feels alive,” she says. “Can you hear that? It’s so beautiful.”

— This is the first story from In the Line of Fire, a series from The Narwhal digging into what is being done to prepare for — and survive — wildfires.

— This story was originally published by The Narwhal

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