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Indigenous fire clearing could prevent future wildfire infernos

One B.C. First Nation is preparing to revive traditional firekeeping to rejuvenate the forest — and reduce the risk of destructive forest fires.

A Penticton Indian Band employee works to prepare a site for future burning.

Submitted

A Penticton Indian Band employee works to prepare a site for future burning.

One Okanagan First Nation is preparing to bring back a traditional way of managing the forest that has been largely absent for over a century.

“All the little trees are burnt out and the grass feeds the deer and the deer feeds us,” Tim Lezard, a band councillor with the Penticton Indian Band, told Metro. This fall, the community will burn of 80 hectares of forest between Summerland and Peachland.

“You burn off the land and it takes the trees away and the plants that we pick. It saves them a place on the land so we can pick and eat those.”

British Columbia is experiencing yet another extreme wildfire season, which has so far destroyed dozens of homes and pushed 45,000 residents from their homes. As climate change increases the odds of longer, more intense fire seasons, forest scientists say this traditional Indigenous way of frequently clearing the land could be the answer to keeping massive wildfires at bay.

Forest ecologist Jill Harvey recently studied an area near Hanceville, north of Williams Lake, using tree ring analysis to build a detailed history of fire. Her study area is now engulfed in flames.

Forest ecologist Jill Harvey analyzed tree rings to compile a detailed history of forest fires in the Cariboo Chilcoten. Fires were common in the 200 years before European settlement, but stopped after 1896.

Jill Harvey/Submitted

Forest ecologist Jill Harvey analyzed tree rings to compile a detailed history of forest fires in the Cariboo Chilcoten. Fires were common in the 200 years before European settlement, but stopped after 1896.

“We’ve created really good basis for fires and when I say we I mean fire suppression and modern fire management practices,” Harvey said.

“In Hanceville…there were (ten) fires between 1769 and 1896 at that one particular site, and then no fires after 1896.”

No fires increases the likelihood of a massive fire.

“That’s 121 years between 1896 and present day where fuels (dry grass and forest floor litter) were allowed to accumulate. That’s what’s burning right now.”

Jill Harvey's study site near Hanceville, B.C. is now on fire — after a 121-year forest fire gap.

Lori Daniels, a forest science professor at the University of British Columbia, has done similar studies in other areas of B.C., including a collaboration with the Penticton Indian Band. Her study showed fires spaces seven to eight years apart, with a range of size and intensity.

The research told a story that matched Indigenous oral history: “Lots of historical fires, a real change in the fire regime at the time of European settlement, and then land use change that excluded fires from spreading as we had (cattle) grazers and then more and more technology to detect and quickly supress fires,” Daniels said.

Indigenous people used fire to shape the landscape to promote berry and shrub growth, wider-spaced treed areas and grasslands so animals like deer could graze and be hunted. It was a practice common across North America.

A fire-scarred tree in the Cariboo region. Species like Douglas fir, with its inches-thick bark, have evolved to be able to withstand fire.

Jill Harvey/Submitted

A fire-scarred tree in the Cariboo region. Species like Douglas fir, with its inches-thick bark, have evolved to be able to withstand fire.

European settlement, and diseases like smallpox that vastly reduced Indigenous populations, effectively put an end to the age of fire. Starting in the 1870s in B.C., “it became punishable by hanging to light fires,” Daniels said.

Lezard is from a family of firekeepers: his grandmother, Annie Kruger, was trained as a firekeeper starting when she was a child. She passed down her knowledge to Lezard’s uncle, Pierre Kruger.

“When people suppress fires it’s because they see a commodity in terms of timber,” Lezard said. “But it’s not about that — it’s about the land.”

Indigenous people in the Okanagan used fire to promote black cap berry growth, said Tim Lezard: one part of the berry bush would be burned each year.

Glenda Popielarski/Flickr Creative Commons Licence

Indigenous people in the Okanagan used fire to promote black cap berry growth, said Tim Lezard: one part of the berry bush would be burned each year.

B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resources will be working with the Penticton Indian Band to conduct the planned burn this fall. Daniels would like to see forest professionals spend more time learning from B.C.’s Indigenous communities.

“One of the concerns that we have is that their knowledge is not being used to guide management of wildfire or land use practices,” she said.

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