The Current

Skeetchestn First Nation wants more prescribed burns to protect from future wildfires

Members of Skeetchestn First Nation in B.C. were able to protect their community and homes from the Sparks Lake Fire this summer, but much of their land was scorched. Now people there want the province to use their knowledge and do more prescribed burns to prevent future damage.

Chief Darrel Draney says more prescribed burns could have prevented damage to the land in the First Nation

When the reserve was evacuated earlier this summer, Darrell Peters and other members of the Skeetchestn Territorial Patrol stayed behind to hold back the flames. ( Matt Meuse/CBC)

The chief of Skeetchestn First Nation in B.C. wants provincial agreement to conduct more controlled fires in the off season, in the hopes of thwarting a repeat of this summer's devastating wildfires.

"We understand fire. If you don't use fire to protect the land, the fuel stacks up and then you end up with huge fires that do more damage than good," Chief Darrel Draney told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Prescribed burns are conducted during the spring and fall, creating breaks to slow or stop wildfires. They used to be common practice, and after being outlawed for a while, are now allowed again — but only on a small scale. 

When the enormous Sparks Lake Fire threatened Skeetchestn First Nation in July, members were able to funnel the flames into historic prescribed burn areas, preventing damage to homes and buildings. 

Darrel Draney is the chief of the Skeetchestn Indian Band. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Despite that success, much of the land surrounding their community was scorched. Draney said more prescribed burns could have prevented that damage done to the land.

While most of the community was evacuated, 75 firekeepers and volunteers stayed behind to fight the fire.

Darrell Peters led the Skeetchestn crew, and had help from about 100 people from B.C. Wildfire Service. 

"With the Sparks fire here, [B.C. Wildfire Service] started to communicate with me a little bit better; they took my knowledge into consideration," said Peters, head of Skeetchestn's territorial patrol.

"And then we started capitalizing on making the right calls, getting a handle on things."

But he still wishes authorities would "open up to be more co-operative," and engage more with the knowledge of "the ranchers, the people from the reserves and the loggers that know the land."

The hillsides of the Criss Creek valley sit covered in burnt trees. It will take decades for the forest to recover. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"I think they should have open arms to our knowledge of the area, of how to deal with the fires," he said.

B.C. Wildfire Services said it agrees that the First Nation's insight was beneficial for managing the Sparks Lake fire. In a statement emailed to CBC, B.C. Wildfire Services said it's "working to provide more resources and support to communities that are looking to use prescribed fire or cultural burns more frequently."

Wildfire Services says there is no specific limit on how much prescribed burns can happen in a year, and it only allows what is safe in the off-season. 

"Specific weather patterns need to be present to ensure safe and efficient prescribed burning. Planning a prescribed burn can often take months to over a year before the burn is implemented." 

Other provinces operate similarly across the country, planned for the spring or fall, when conditions are safe. 

Band members and fire crews used heavy equipment to dig large firebreaks all around Skeetchestn territory in an effort to protect the community. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Traditional knowledge

Peters grew up on the land, and comes from a long line of firekeepers. His grandmother fought fires, as did his great grandmother. He gained knowledge of the territory and environment from his time hunting and gathering. 

Peters uses that knowledge to fight fires, but also set controlled fires in the off season. He also does cultural burns, a sacred Indigenous practice that uses low-intensity fire as a form of ecological stewardship.

"You have to understand in those ceremonies we asked fire to go away, but we also asked to come back. We need fire. We want it back," said Chief Draney.

With the prospect of destructive fire seasons becoming an annual challenge, Draney wants financing for emergency response teams made up of locals, properly equipped and ready to move as soon as a fire starts.

Those teams would have "the knowledge of the specific spot, how much fuel it has, when to attack it and when not to attack it," he said.

"If we are resourced properly, we could have this taken care of way faster than B.C. mobilizes a team to get here."

Darrell Peters is head of the Skeetchestn Territorial Patrol, who uses his knowledge of fire and the landscape to protect his community, like his grandmother and great-grandmother before him. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

'They are not leaving'

In the Kamloops fire district, 2021 was the worst fire season in history, as over 500,000 hectares of land burned.

Skeetchestn elder and knowledge-keeper Terry Deneault spent 53 days out of his home due to the fire. He's deeply grateful for the crews that stayed and saved the houses in the valley, including his own, but he says the devastation to the surrounding forests is a huge blow to a community that relies primarily on hunting and gathering.

"We teach our children to respect what's out there on the land," he said. "And when you go out on the land and you see nothing but black and ashes — what is there to teach?"

Terry Deneault, a Skeetchestn elder and knowledge keeper, stands in front of his beloved Deadman Creek. Without the land, he says, his people are nothing. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"The land gives us everything," he said. "Without this land that we're standing on, the four corners of our territory — we're nobody."

Archaeologist Joanne Hammond says like Deneault, many others don't have another home or wish to leave.

"They have been here for 10,000 years and they're not going to walk away from it," she said.

Hammond is the director of heritage for the Skeetchestn and Natural Resources Corporation. She says about 65 per cent of the forested area in the territory has been destroyed by fire over the past four years.

Mike Anderson and Joanne Hammond survey the landscape near Criss Creek. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

She said that change to protect the land needs to happen now. 

"It specifically looks like not letting industry run the show anymore. It specifically looks like reforming industrial forestry from the bottom up. Everything has to change about it," said Hammond.

"It looks like putting land management back in the hands of First Nations, and it looks like that within 10 years, not a long-term plan," she said. 

"We don't have time for that anymore. All of those things need to happen at once in order for us to actually have a fighting chance here."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Elizabeth Hoath, Matt Meuse and Lindsay Rempel.

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