Fort Nelson First Nation uses fire to save bison, limit wildfires

A team from the Fort Nelson First Nation recently took to the air to set fire to almost 3,000 hectares of forest in northeastern B.C. The First Nation is reviving a tradition of controlled burns to prevent wildfires and renew wildlife habitat.

Controlled burn in 2013 attributed to drawing bison back to deep woods near Nordquist Lake, B.C.

Ecologist Sonja Leverkus loads an 'aerial ignition dispenser' during a controlled burn in 2013. Thousands of flammable ping-pong balls were dropped in the forest. (CBC)

Using a helicopter and a machine that pumps out 100 flaming ping-pong balls every minute, a team from the Fort Nelson First Nation recently took to the air to set fire to almost 3,000 hectares of forest in the Liard River area in northeastern British Columbia.

It's part of the First Nation's ongoing efforts to help a threatened herd of wood bison.

"Prescribed fire is very important to keep range land open, as far as the ability to access forage and vegetation for bison," said Sonja Leverkus, an ecologist working with the First Nation.

The wood bison were reintroduced to Nordquist Lake two decades ago, after being extirpated from the area in 1906.

Over time, the small herd of 120 to 180 animals has strayed far from its home range, attracted by easier grazing alongside the Alaska Highway.

It's estimated five to 20 bison die every year as a result of vehicle accidents, and the threatened species has become a hazard to motorists.

These bison were spotted grazing at the site of a previous burn, near their home range at Nordquist Lake, B.C. (Sonja Leverkus)
In 2013, the Fort Nelson First Nation embarked on efforts to use controlled burns as a way to attract the Nordquist herd back to its home range.

Fires get rid of deadwood building up in the forests and stimulate growth of plants the bison prefer to eat.

The project is being funded by Environment Canada and carried out in partnership with a local guide outfitter, Liard River Adventures.

This year's prescribed fire plan involved returning to previously burned clearings to set more fires, using a chopper and an "aerial ignition dispenser" to drop thousands of chemical-filled plastic spheres on the forests and rangeland, setting a line of fires that spread across the landscape.

Leverkus was excited to spot about 20 bison grazing near Nordquist Lake. That means some bison have been lured back into the deep woods, which Leverkus attributes to the controlled burn in 2013.

"We strongly feel the bison presence at Nordquist — and a couple of calves — means that the animals are still going back to the area they were originally introduced, away from the highway."

Burning part of cultural heritage

The Dene of Fort Nelson First Nation have a long history of managing land through controlled burns.

Trappers and hunters would light fires in the spring to encourage plants that attract large game such as deer and elk. Forests were also burned to spur the growth of berries and medicinal plants. But that practice dwindled, with the province discouraging the burning of valuable timber.

"We have to relearn a lot of the things that have been taken away from us," said Jackson McDermott, a 20-year-old university student who was a new addition to the Fort Nelson First Nation fire team this year.

Jackson McDermott of Fort Nelson First Nation helped with this year's prescribed fires. (Sonja Leverkus)

"It's part of our cultural heritage. This is something we have to do … the land won't be as healthy without the prescribed burning," he said, adding that he recalls his grandfather setting fires to try to help wildlife.

Liz Logan, the chief of Fort Nelson First Nation, said other First Nations in B.C. are watching the Fort Nelson project closely and are "keenly interested" in reviving controlled burns to renew wildlife habitat.

"Burning is our right and our responsibility as stewards of the land," she said. "Some of our people are of the mind that we don't need permission from the government to do what we've always done."

Wildfire season starts early

The wildfire season started earlier than usual this year in northern British Columbia. The Little Bobtail Lake wildfire, southwest of Prince George, continues to rage and is only 30 per cent contained.

Critics suggest the provincial government isn't doing enough to prevent catastrophic wildfires, and Logan said the province's process for issuing burn permits is hampered by delays.

"We have been good stewards and talked to the province and got our permit to do our controlled burn," Logan said. "But it takes a lot of effort to get it, and get them to understand why we're doing it."

The provincial government said it supports prescribed fire to reduce fuel in the forest and restore wildlife habitat. Sixteen prescribed burns have taken place provincewide so far in 2015. The Wildfire Management Branch said burn plans submitted by First Nations are reviewed like all others, for "feasibility and risk to the Crown."

"All agencies and other proponents of prescribed burns are treated in the same manner, including First Nations," Greig Bethel, of B.C.'s Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, said via email.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.