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A Douglas Fir seedling, dropped from a drone in November 2021, breaks through its delivery 'puck' on June 6, at a site about 15 kilometres west of Williams Lake, B.C., on the Chilcotin Plateau.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

The Douglas Fir seedling is pushing skyward on the Chilcotin Plateau. It’s about the size of a popsicle stick and just as fragile. If it isn’t killed by drought, eaten by an animal or insect, or burned in a wildfire, it might one day grow to resemble the mature trees that stood here before a wildfire swept through in 2017.

If that happens, it will be thanks in part to drones.

An Indigenous-led project called Central Chilcotin Rehabilitation (CCR) is partnering with Seattle company DroneSeed to help rehabilitate B.C. forests devastated by wildfires in recent years. The first such project last fall dropped more than 500,000 seed vessels on a 52-hectare site, 15 kilometres northwest of Williams Lake, B.C. The seed vessels are about as big as a hockey puck and contain soil, seeds and a lacing of hot pepper to deter hungry animals.

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The drone seeding is part of a larger, $7.5-million program CCR is undertaking to rehabilitate the area through clearing, harvesting and planting, funded by provincial Crown corporation Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. (FESBC).

“It’s not going to replace tree planting,” Percy Guichon, a councillor with Tŝideldel First Nation and a CCR director, said as he checked the seedlings on site. “But it’s another tool in the tool box.”

The amount of land needing some sort of rehabilitation is expected to grow as experts predict wildfires will grow in number and intensity with climate change. That trend can be seen in the blackened slopes around the Chilcotin Plateau, where forests ravaged by mountain pine beetle infestations in the 1980s and 90s were further damaged by catastrophic fires in 2017.

DroneSeed is positioning itself to meet higher demand for replanting in the future. Because its system uses prepackaged seed vessels instead of relying on stock grown in nurseries, drone seeding can be deployed in days or weeks, when conditions allow, rather than being restricted to a spring planting season. The system is designed to cover large areas, including steep or hazardous terrain. DroneSeed says its system can help mitigate climate change. For CCR, the drone seeding pilot project puts them on the front lines of technical innovation and reflects their priorities for the land.

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Percy Guichon, councillor of Tsideldel First Nations and director of Central Chilcotin Rehabilitation Ltd., left, speaks to visitors on June 6 at a restoration site. Also seen are Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars, centre, and Tl’etinqox Government Councillor Paul Grinder.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

CCR was formed in 2017 by the Tŝideldel First Nation and the Tl’etinqox Government, two of six communities that make up the Tŝilhq’otin National Government (TNG) and whose traditional territories cover about 66,000 square kilometres of mountains, forests and grassland between the Fraser River and the Coast Mountains.

CCR’s original plan was to focus on areas damaged in pine beetle outbreaks. But then came the summer, and with it, one of B.C.’s worst fire seasons on record. Wildfires in 2017 burned more than 1.2-million hectares and resulted in evacuation orders for more than 65,000 people.

In 2017, fires raged for days on the Chilcotin Plateau and came perilously close to Tŝilhq’otin communities. During one blaze, Tl’etinqox members stayed put to battle encroaching flames despite a provincial evacuation order, highlighting jurisdictional tensions between Tŝilhq’otin, federal and provincial authorities and setting the stage for a tri-partite emergency management agreement in 2018. That agreement, the first of its kind in Canada, was renewed in July for a five-year term.

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A truck is loaded at a Central Chilcotin Rehabilitation biomass grinding project, where ‘slash’ or waste wood, that would typically have been burned in piles, is ground up to be used as fuel for a 66MW biomass-fired power plant in Williams Lake, B.C.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

The risk has not gone away. In a report on the 2017 fires, released in 2019, the TNG said forests in the region are “becoming increasingly more combustible and dangerous” and that wildfire risk is expected to increase with climate change.

That’s added urgency to projects designed to tackle fuel loads that have been built up over decades – a hazard flagged in reports dating back to at least 2004, when a government-commissioned report on the preceding year’s disastrous fire season noted that decades of fire suppression had allowed fuel to build up to dangerous levels.

A few minutes’ drive out of the city of Williams Lake, the Williams Lake First Nation is working on a forest resiliency project in a stand of Douglas Firs. Some trees have been removed and others trimmed, clearing spaces big enough for large animals to walk through. Some dense thickets have been left for birds and smaller creatures.

There’s a mobile chipper on site to process stumps and scraps, in line with an FESBC mandate to make better use of wood waste.

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Wildfires in 2017 burned more than 1.2-million hectares and resulted in evacuation orders for more than 65,000 people.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

At this site, wood that typically would have been burned is headed to a biomass-fuelled electricity plant in Williams Lake.

The Williams Lake First Nation is planning a cultural burn on the site in the fall.

Amy Cardinal Christianson, who this year joined Parks Canada as its first Indigenous fire specialist, describes cultural burns as small-scale, low-intensity burns used by Indigenous peoples for specific objectives, such as improving plant habitat. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with prescribed burns, but Ms. Christianson makes a distinction, saying prescribed burns are typically larger and based on wildfire-related objectives, such as creating a fire break around communities.

The fire envisioned by the Williams Lake First Nation is part of a groundswell of interest in Indigenous fire practices that has her fielding inquiries about lands from the Gulf Islands to Labrador.

That interest reflects Indigenous peoples’ desire to learn about and pass on ancestral land management practices, “but then also applying them to the landscape that they’re on,” Ms. Christianson said.

In a recent paper, Ms. Christianson and co-authors called for more investment in fire prevention, including Indigenous fire practices, noting that 60 per cent of Indigenous peoples in Canada are in remote and forested areas and that Indigenous peoples are 30 per cent more likely than non-Indigenous people to be displaced by fires.

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The tracked pattern at a restoration site. The grooves in the soil help dropped seedlings take root.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

And reforestation methods that worked in the past may not hold up in the future. Some studies show plantings are prone to failure, because of hot, dry conditions or because fertile soils have been burned or eroded in wildfires, B.C. fire ecologist Robert Gray said.

In some cases, experts might conclude the best way to mitigate risks in some fire-prone areas is to leave them as grasslands or shrub lands instead of replanting them, Mr. Gray said in an e-mail. Future fires could then be steered into these areas, which he likened to a catcher’s mitt.

On the Chilcotin Plateau, some areas burned in 2017 fires have been replanted twice with little success, said Danny Strobbe, forestry superintendent with Tsi Del Del Enterprises Ltd., a forestry company partly owned by the Tŝideldel First Nation. Mr. Strobbe worked with CCR on the drone project and will be part of the follow-up in coming years.

Last year’s extreme heat killed many replanted trees and future projections call for more hot, dry weather, he notes. He sees drone seeding as potentially playing a role in adapting to those evolving conditions.

Back in the clearing, the Douglas Fir seedling looks as though it has a fighting chance. So far, it’s not been chewed by bug or beast.

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars sees CCR’s drone seeding pilot program, along with projects like the one his community is doing closer to the city, as part of a societal shift in which First Nations are exercising more control – and receiving more benefits – from the lands where they have lived for thousands of years.

“We continue to need to diversify,” Mr. Sellars said. “Technology has continued to change and evolve – we need to do the same.”

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