Joe Gilchrist is a traditional firekeeper with the Interior Salish Firekeepers. Bob Gray is a certified wildland fire ecologist. Layne Clarke is a law student and Calvin Sandborn is senior counsel at the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.
Since 2016, three of the worst fire seasons in British Columbia’s recorded history have occurred, burning an area the size of Vancouver Island. Tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated from homes. Billions of dollars have been lost to firefighting and property damage. Both timber supply and ecosystems have been devastated.
Wildfire smoke now casts an eerie pall over B.C. summers, tanking tourism in the Cariboo region, tainting Okanagan wines, and threatening human health from Victoria to Calgary. Many towns now live in fear that they could become the next Lytton, Fort McMurray or Paradise, Calif., and be razed to the ground.
It hasn’t always been like this.
Fire experts tell us that when industrial forestry abolished Indigenous-controlled burning, it set the stage for the recent catastrophic wildfires. For centuries, Indigenous people had used fire to control fire: They regularly burned forests to protect their communities from uncontrolled fire, to clear land for berries, medicinal plants, bison, moose and elk and to allow fire-resilient forests to thrive, with reduced timber litter, natural meadow firebreaks and patches of less-flammable deciduous forest.
But settlers changed that. Laws were passed to outlaw Indigenous cultural burning. After the Second World War, Smokey Bear’s philosophy of “suppress all fire all the time” dominated forest management.
This near-total exclusion of fire has combined with monoculture forestry to create today’s crisis. A monumental accumulation of dead needles, leaves, branches, logs, dense brush and thickets and unbroken expanses of highly flammable coniferous trees form the megafire powder keg. Supercharged by climate change, these fires burn far hotter than ever, sterilizing soil, creating flood conditions, and imperiling long-term ecosystem resilience.
Part of the solution is to recognize ancient wisdom, and to “fight fire with fire.” Modern fire ecologists recognize this, and now widely prescribe controlled burning to create fire breaks and reduce forest fuels. Australia’s entire wildfire control program relies heavily on Aboriginal Rangers conducting prescribed burns. In the United States, about 150,000 prescribed burns take place each year.
B.C. is now expanding prescribed burning, and has begun pilot projects with First Nations to restore cultural burning. But we lag far behind Australia and the United States. Northern Australia’s comprehensive efforts have helped cut wildfires in half. New Jersey -- less than 1 per cent the size of B.C. -- conducts more prescribed burning than all of B.C. Our efforts must expand dramatically.
We need to make a major investment in fire prevention. We will need thousands of trained prescribed burners. Fortunately, this can create many invaluable jobs on the land for Indigenous guardians. However, a large-scale preventative burning program cannot proceed without two key law reforms:
First, we need to establish proper training and certification of prescribed fire practitioners. Western Australia cabinet minister Tony Buti explains the issue:
“Getting prescribed burning right requires clear and set objectives, the right conditions and most importantly trained and experienced land managers and fire practitioners […] Training and accreditation is the key to ensure cultural burning and traditional owner groups have the necessary systems in place to minimize future reputational risk resulting from any escaped prescribed burns.”
While the BC Wildfire Service has limited programs to train government personnel to carry out prescribed burning, we urgently need to expand the training system. We can learn from U.S. states that run large programs to train and certify citizens in prescribed-fire techniques. First Nations must be equal partners in creating such a B.C. system, which should fully acknowledge the experience and knowledge of Indigenous cultural fire practitioners.
Second, we need to reduce legal liability of certified prescribed-fire practitioners.
Prescribed fires seldom escape and cause significant damage, but it occasionally occurs. Common law liability rules can make it difficult to buy insurance for prescribed burning and stymie large-scale prescribed burning efforts. States such as Michigan, Florida, and Georgia now encourage prescribed burning by reducing liability for state-certified burners carrying out planned fires as long as the burners follow specific safeguards. States that have adopted these liability reforms now carry out far more prescribed burning.
To address the interests of those who might be affected by a runaway fire, California recently created a “prescribed fire claim fund” to compensate people negatively impacted.
With thoughtful law reform, prescribed burning can play an essential role in addressing megafires. It can help safeguard B.C. communities, maintain healthy ecosystems, protect key industries, create new Indigenous job opportunities, and reduce total greenhouse gas emissions. It’s clearly time to fight fire with fire.