Maybe we *can* fight fire with fire

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      As another BC summer unfurls in the shadow of massive wildfire devastation, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that all fires are bad. But a growing community of forestry experts, Indigenous firekeepers, and fire specialists are advocating for controlled burns—which can actually help keep our forests safe.

      Cultural burning, also called prescribed fire and intentional fire, does not damage the land, but rather allows it to grow back healthier, says Joe Gilchrist, vice-president and co-founder of the Interior Salish Firekeepers. Together with knowledge holders, language speakers, medicine gatherers, and ex-firefighters, he’s part of a community effort working to bring back safe cultural burning in our province.

      Prescribed fires are effective in burning what’s called fuel—essentially, plant matter including branches, grass, and shrubs—that accumulates in our forests over time. This fuel buildup becomes increasingly difficult to extinguish, especially when paired with the hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change.

      “I’ve seen a foot-and-a-half to two feet thick with pine needles,” Gilchrist notes. “It’s just so overgrown and overstocked.”

      Controlled burns are typically done in the spring and fall. “In the spring, the snow melts, and the moisture slowly goes into the ground and leaves the top layer dry,” Gilchrist explains. “Underneath, the roots are still protected by moisture.”

      Prescribed fire also helps keep communities a safe distance away from potential wildfires, and leaves a defensible space for firefighters to properly manage them.

      While the provincial government is helping to reintroduce cultural burning, Gilchrist finds the approval process slow and onerous. It usually takes between two and five years to get permission for a burn, and even then, if conditions aren’t ideal, it can’t happen. He also says that the BC Wildfire Service wants to control the process, and he wishes it was more of an Indigenous-led partnership.

      “If you use fire as a tool, at the right times of the year, then it’s not bad—it’s actually a good thing, and it does a lot of work for you,” he says. “But it is a tool and it can be dangerous, and so you really need to be knowledgeable about using fire.”

      According to Pacific Institute of Climate Solutions researcher Jen Baron, we’ve had a zero-tolerance policy on fire since 1940.

      “That’s really when that generational lack of relationship with fire starts,” she notes. “We were trying to protect the values of the time—forestry, lumber, and wildlife. The assumption was that fire would destroy these systems, although most of these systems actually evolved with fire in them—eventually they will burn, whether we want them to or not.”

      Baron compares the current situation to a campfire that has been built up for a hundred years instead of being burned at regular intervals: “The combination of, you know, the amount of fuel that’s there today and then the hotter and drier conditions are what make current fires so volatile.”

      Photo by Joe Gilchrist.

      Forest management instructor and Métis Nation BC member Justin Perry is another advocate for holistic wildfire management. During his time as a forestry student—in the same BCIT program where he now teaches—Perry was heavily involved in Indigenous initiatives, and worked in the sweat lodge as a firekeeper. It was then that he learned to see fire as an integral part of our planet’s health.

      “It can outright kill you,” Perry admits. “But at the same time, if we don’t have any fire, then there’s no life—it’s about finding the balance within that, and how it connects to the rest of the environment, to the landscape, and with our communities.”

      To him, holistic wildfire management includes the interrelations between wildfires, prescribed burning, climate change, logging, water, and trained firefighters.

      “We need our fire crews, so I’m not at all trying to take away what is happening now,” he explains, “but it’s opening up the potential to have more discussion about how we can improve wildfire
      management and look at it in a more holistic, all-encompassing sense.”

      He believes a combined approach is needed to move forward—including proper holistic education about forest management and wildfires.

      “Both of those are very much seen in a negative light in the province right now, and for good reason,” he says. “It’s a horrible thing when people get evacuated from their communities and they lose their homes, so I think that educating people about how we can improve wildfire management, and also the forest management that leads up to how wildfire behaves, is massive.”

      Alongside education efforts, Perry hopes to see cooperation between all levels of government.

      “Not all fires are bad, and we need a lot of context to be able to have an informed discussion about it,” he reflects. “When is it good? When is it bad? How are we going to interact with it?”