Brady Highway began his wildfire education as a teenager, working on crews that fought Saskatchewan forest fires with chainsaws, shovels and strategy.
The strategy would take into account factors including wind, terrain and equipment to determine the best way to combat a blaze or, sometimes, to let it burn.
Over other jobs in firefighting and land management, he learned more about how Indigenous practices, including prescribed or deliberate burns, had once been widely used for ecological reasons such as increasing berry crops or improving wildlife habitat.
Now, as project manager with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, Mr. Highway wants to see that knowledge shared through a national Indigenous Fire Guardian network, with trained workers who could fight fires and also, potentially, set them – reflecting growing interest in reviving Indigenous fire practices that were discouraged or banned for much of the past century.
The work would build on that of existing groups involved in fisheries, forestry and habitat restoration.
“They are the eyes and ears of what is going on on the land,” said Mr. Highway, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.
Currently, provinces and territories can call on each other for firefighting help or tap international networks. In July, for example, crews from Mexico and Australia were scheduled to arrive in B.C. As of July 31, about 3,230 firefighters and other personnel were fighting fires in B.C., including 301 from out of province.
First Nations are often on the wildfire front lines and are pushing for a bigger say in how they are managed.
“We hear from the communities that we work with all the time that they would much rather have a proactive role in managing the risks,” said Brenden Mercer, forestry management liaison with the B.C.-based First Nations’ Emergency Services Society.
“Getting people trained up to understand how to put fire back on the landscape properly, safely, managed for all the other values on the landscape – that is definitely something we are focused on.”
Amy Cardinal Christianson, a fire social scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, works with First Nations that want to re-introduce cultural fire practices.
“Most of the communities we are working with say they notice the forests around their community are unhealthy,” said Ms. Cardinal Christianson, who is based in Alberta.
“There have been the pine beetle [infestation] and other impacts, and there are just basically overgrown and unmanaged forests. So they’re trying to bring the fire practices and Indigenous knowledge back to these landscapes.”
Decades of fire suppression in B.C. have created dangerous fuel loads in forests, says Bruce Blackwell, a Vancouver-based wildfire consultant who would like to see an increased focus more on fuel management, along with prescribed burns.
“There is just so much fuel on the landscape right now. And these fires under these conditions, are like atomic bombs going off,” he said.
In Saskatchewan, Solomon and Renee Carriere are working to reintroduce burns to the Saskatchewan River Delta, which straddles the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border and at 10,000 square kilometres, is the largest inland delta in North America.
The couple teamed up with University of Saskatchewan researchers to compare burned and non-burned blocks in marshy areas.
The experiment showed there were more plants and more, heavier muskrats in the areas that were burned, Ms. Carriere said.
One of the goals of the experiment was to translate Indigenous knowledge into data, with the intent of changing regulations against burning.
“We need to bridge both ways of understanding the land,” Ms. Carriere said. “We knew it would give more power if we had numbers.”
Indigenous fire crews have been involved in fighting fires in B.C. for decades, beginning with “street hires” and evolving into an Indigenous Unit Crew Program launched in 1988, according to a history co-written by Telise Gauthier, who is with the B.C. Wildfire Service through an Indigenous Youth Internship Program.
By the early 1990s, there were about 25 crews around the province, but those numbers dwindled as a result of application and hiring changes that posed challenges to Indigenous applicants, Ms. Gauthier wrote.
For example not having a driver’s licence or Internet access might result in an applicant not making the cut. Longer seasons meant more time away from home and there was little flexibility when it came to arranging leave for cultural practices, including hunting and fishing.
Work is currently underway to address such barriers, Ms. Gauthier wrote.
B.C. Wildfire Services categorizes fire crews into three types, with Type 1 being the most highly trained frontline workers. Type 2 crews are used for “sustained action” – fighting a blaze over a sustained period – while Type 3 crews work mostly on mop-up.
The BCWS and the Ministry of Forests listed several steps the province is taking to support Indigenous fire skills and training, including teaming up with FNESS and Indigenous Services Canada to train Type 2 and 3 firefighting crews.
FNESS has trained 147 Indigenous firefighters across the province over about the past two years and there are 36 First Nations Type 3 crews registered with the province, the agencies said in an email to The Globe and Mail.
BCWS also collaborates with many Indigenous communities through prescribed fire and cultural burning, the agencies said.
In 2017, the federal government allotted $25-million over four years for an Indigenous Guardian pilot, saying it would provide information for a potential national network.
The pilot currently lists 33 programs, including the Mikisew Cree First Nation Guardian project in Fort McMurray, the site of a devastating wildfire in 2016.
Adding basic firefighting skill training to the programs would be a natural fit, says FNESS’s Mr. Mercer.
“Just adding that to Indigenous guardian programs that already exist and are well-funded by the federal government - I really think that is a solution for long-term success,”Mr. Mercer said.
If communities decide firefighting is a necessary part of guardian activities, they could add those activities to funding proposals under the pilot program, Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson Cecelia Parsons said in an email.
Mr. Highway, meanwhile, notes that intense wildfire seasons result in calls for boots on the ground –and he wants to put them there.
“It’s difficult for me to understand why you would be evacuating potential volunteer firefighters or other casual firefighters who have the experience and know-how to get around on their land – evacuate them, but import crews from other provinces,” he said.
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