Kitchener-Waterloo

Indigenous cultural burning can boost biodiversity, help fight forest fires: Canadian study

A new University of Waterloo study that examines controlled fire practices — or cultural burning by Indigenous people — indicates they can help improve an area's biodiversity while getting rid bits of wood and leaves that could lead to massive forest fires.

There's frustration 'elders and our knowledge keepers weren't listened to,' scientist says

A controlled burn at FortWhyte Alive, an outdoor education centre near Winnipeg, in 2019. A nearly 27-hectare patch of grassland was burned to rejuvenate habitat, curb weed growth, and restore wildflowers and grasses. A new University of Waterloo examined how cultural burning helps the land and protects against wildfires and forest fires. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Forest fires and wildfires now posing concerns in parts of Canada highlight the complicated relationship people have with fire, says the co-author of a new University of Waterloo study that indicates Indigenous fire practices can actually help fight them.

There was a time when fires were set on purpose, to boost biodiversity of an area while cutting down the risk of larger blazes taking out communities, said Andrew Trant, an associate professor in the university's School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability.

The study, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks at Indigenous fire stewardship — setting fires at specific times of the year and locations for various reasons.

Before settlers arrived in Canada, Indigenous people would regularly burn parts of the land, including for the creation of trails, to help with agriculture, attract certain animals that would eat vegetation that grows from the scorched ground, or for other cultural reasons.

"There's so many places around the world where we see some form of Indigenous fire stewardship, and in places that we wouldn't expect it, places that are dry and hot, and different grasslands, but also in places that are really wet, and we never imagined fire being used as a tool to manage the landscape, so temperate rainforest," Trant said.

The research reviewed other studies and reports, from 1900 to today, on cultural burning by Indigenous people.

The lead author is Kira Hoffman, a recent postdoctoral fellow in the University of Waterloo's faculty of environment, and now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia's faculty of forestry and The Bulkley Valley Research Centre.

Used when fires 'wouldn't get away'

Hoffman also found it fascinating that fire stewardship was used by Indigenous people around the world.

"Fire knowledge and practices can be very similar in tropical rainforests and dry grasslands, but then differ between neighbouring communities depending on the reason for using fire," Hoffman said in an email to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

They also discovered that cultural burning "always took place outside of the window of uncontrollable fire activity," she said.

"Whether this was during the spring when the snow was still on the ground or in the fall just before the rains came, or even at night when humidity levels were high, cultural burning was used when fires wouldn't get away," Hoffman said. "In many places, cultural burning is a community practice, and children would learn from an early age how to safely use and respect fire."

'In many places, cultural burning is a community practice, and children would learn from an early age how to safely use and respect fire,' says study lead author Kira Hoffman, a recent postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who's now in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry and at The Bulkley Valley Research Centre. (Marty Clemens)

'Knowledge keepers weren't listened to'

The study notes there's misunderstanding around cultural burning and a fear of fire. But Hoffman said their findings show there's a way to manage fires that would actually benefit both the land and communities that may be at risk if a wildfire or forest fire were to spark nearby.

"Indigenous communities can and have lived safely with fire for millennia to enhance their surroundings. It would be great if after reading this paper, the public emerged with an understanding that fire is a necessary and healthy component of our fire-dependent ecosystems and human communities."

The findings are not surprising to Amy Cardinal Christianson, a Métis of Treaty 6 in Alberta who works as a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

"There's a lot of frustration, at least with the nations that I work with, that the elders and our knowledge keepers weren't listened to about this and that it's kind of taken Western science or other things to prove our knowledge," Christianson said in an interview.

Christianson did not work on this particular study, but has teamed with Hoffman on other research projects.

She said that when she goes into Indigenous communities, she hears people say forests need to be "cleaned up," meaning there's a need for "low-intensity burns on the landscape to really remove some of that fuel" that could lead to a forest fire, or "bad fires."

Amy Cardinal Christianson, a fire researcher with the Canadian Forest Service, says there;s a lack of understanding around cultural burning, including why it's done and the techniques that are used. (CBC)

"Bad fires are highly destructive to the landscape, [and] can take — especially in Northern Canada — 100 years to fully recover," she said, noting in some cases, fires are so severe that the forest is never able to recover. 

But "good fires" are ones that slowly creep along the ground. 

"The important thing with good fire is that you're not burning the big healthy trees," Christianson said.

"When I see fire, I see being around people, community activity, having people there — it being really low risk," she added.

"Kids can be there, elders can be there. You're really controlling your smoke. So I think it's just that almost difference in perception of fire."

WATCH | Inside the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton:

Inside the Canadian Forest Service

3 years ago
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Check out the wildfire science going on at the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, Alta. 2:53

Human-fire relationship needs to change

Trant noted Indigenous people make up five per cent of the world's population, but protect approximately 85 per cent of the world's biodiversity through Indigenous-managed lands.

He said the findings of their study show there are better ways to handle fire on the land.

"The relationship with fire and people has to change, and there's a long history of this relationship being much better and and in many cases positive for the landscape.

"Over the past hundred years, that relationship has shifted and we've become scared of fire in many ways."

Trant said the relationship people have with fire "is a problematic one," but "it's something that we really need to change."

There are "so many reasons" there should be a return to Indigenous fire stewardship, "and we need to support those practices." 

Hoffman said her next research will focus on why there are barriers to cultural burning in Canada and she'll "look to other regions where cultural burning is being revitalized."

"I'd like to push for more support for Indigenous-led cultural burning in communities and territories across Canada."

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