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Bruce Cunningham worked an office job last winter, but his thoughts were never far from the dense northern Alberta forest: He missed the trees and wildlife, the feeling of being out on the land with his friends and family, of protecting the land from fire.

"The wildland is our home. That's where we were born, that's where we were raised. We feel the need that we have to protect it because it is our land, after all," said Mr. Cunningham, a firefighter from the East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta. "It's like nature to us, being out there, right?"

Mr. Cunningham is one of about 500 First Nation and Métis firefighters who worked on the Fort McMurray wildfire in recent weeks. Alberta Forestry information officer Lynn Daina said indigenous crews make up half of all resources on the wildfire right now, and comprise the largest percentage of firefighters working on the blaze.

She said many people may not be aware of the huge role indigenous firefighters play in managing wildfires in the province, or the history of indigenous firefighting in Alberta.

"Before Forestry was even an entity, they were putting out fires. They probably trained our first forest rangers on putting out fires, because they were the ones doing it," Ms. Daina said. "They were the original stewards of the forest."

In a video produced by Alberta Wildfire in 2015, wildfire manager Gordon Bisgrove called indigenous firefighting crews "the backbone" of the fire service in Alberta.

Garret Howse, a 15-year firefighting veteran who leads Mr. Cunningham on an eight-person crew, said he grew up with wildfires burning around his community ‑ and with his uncles and other relatives out fighting them.

"I always looked up to them," said Mr. Howse, who is also from the East Prairie Métis Settlement. "It's a sense of pride. It's not just a summer thing for us. Fighting the fire is one of the most important jobs."

The Alberta Forest Service began training wildfire firefighters in the 1950s. One of the early trainees, Sam Sinclair, then took that formal training back to indigenous people in the Slave Lake area in the spring of 1960, and helped establish indigenous fire crews in Alberta.

Gordon Sinclair said his father taught firefighters to "work harder than the man next to them," and used both the experience and discipline he gained as a Second World War veteran and his knowledge as a Métis man in his approach to firefighting.

"They grew up in the area. They knew what the country was like, they knew what the timber was like," said Mr. Sinclair, whose father died in 2005. "There was a lot of intellect that was in them, and people didn't realize how valuable that was until they started getting native firefighters. It was just like working in our backyard in a lot of places."

Paul Boucher, a Métis man who fought wildfires in the 1960s and 70s, says the indigenous crews in northern Alberta were "the best firefighters in Canada."

"I was a devil fighting fire," he said, standing on a sidewalk in Lac la Biche during the Fort McMurrray wildfires last week. "It was only Métis and First Nations firefighters then. The white people were only bookkeepers."

Thinking about the Fort McMurray fire brought a tear to Mr. Boucher's eye, and he turned his face to brush it away.

"I've been to a lot of fires, and I know what fire's all about," he said.

Ambrose (Jake) Jacobs was 15 when he lied about his age to get on a fire crew in northern Alberta, and began a firefighting career that continues 44 years later. His own house burned down during the devastating wildfire in Slave Lake five years ago. Mr. Jacobs was out fighting the fire at the time.

He says fighting wildfires is hard, dirty, demanding work, but he still loves it – even when he's "crawling around like a dog sniffing for smoke.

"What it is, it's for the love of the bush," he said. "When I get asked to go look at a fire, I'm all excited. I told my boss, the day I don't get excited, then it's time to hang up my coveralls."