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Fire keepers bring back cultural burning traditions

BY Ben Powless Aug 3, 2022

The First Nation tradition of cultural burnings was outlawed in British Columbia over a century ago, putting an end to a practice that helped Indigenous communities manage forests and forest fires for thousands of years.

Now, the practice is being brought back by the Salish Fire Keepers Society, part of a growing movement across North America focused on restoring centuries-old knowledge about the role of fire in a healthy ecological balance. Its proponents claim it as a right, one supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

“The right to burn, to steward the land, to maintain safety around communities – it has to come back,” stated Fire Keeper Joe Gilchrist (Skeetchestn Indian Band). “We call it cultural burning, it’s used to maintain the land in a good way, so that medicines and our forage needs – berries and that kind of stuff – are there.”

Gilchrist says cultural burning practices were passed to each generation even after it was made illegal, and that people started discussing bringing it back as early as the 1980s. After many years of work, their group met all the legal hurdles and reignited the tradition about five years ago, but only on the reserve. 

“We had a collective memory that fire, that cultural burning, has to come back for various reasons – with climate change and the dangers of wildfires getting worse and worse,” he added. “Cultural burning – taking away the fuels around the communities – was a practice over thousands of years.”

He says wildfires are growing so big today is partly because fuels such as kindling such as dry grass is allowed to accumulate. This became apparent when record-breaking wildfires engulfed huge areas of BC last year, culminating in the complete destruction of Lytton shortly after recording a temperature of 49.6 degrees Celsius.

Another member, Marsha Spinks, says the connected impacts of climate change are driving the damage they’re seeing. 

“The water impacts the land, the land is impacted by the lack of trees, it impacts the wildlife, we lose one species, we get overgrown in another, it impacts what we can harvest,” she explained. “That’s basically the teaching of our ancestors and how we should be maintaining and monitoring the forest, water, fish and animals.”

She also recommends preventative measures beyond burning. “Lots of trees we have in BC are invasive species. Replanting isn’t starting as it should be – off the bat.”

Spinks points to delays in getting authorization from other levels of government as preventing immediate action. But she acknowledges that many people fear fire, rather than seeing it as a tool. 

Gilchrist says that maybe half the community is in favour, but that education efforts are needed to sell the public on the idea that fires aren’t always bad, and sometimes necessary. 

“A message has to be given that fire has to happen. The land here has been burned so much that the trees and other plants are needing fire to be healthy and it’s not happening. If we don’t burn it, it will burn at some point. Nobody wants to see wildfires in the summer.”

The crew typically burns in the spring when the ground is still moist from snow melt, or in the fall, when there’s more precipitation. They start by burning small fuels such as grass, pine needles and anything already dry on the ground. 

“If you burn it in sections, you control how hot the fire gets,” Gilchrist said. “When it’s all done, it looks like everything is burned black but within a few weeks, everything comes back healthier.”

They try to make a “blackline” of burned-out areas as wide as the fireline, then begin layering back to burn out more areas. With this method, Gilchrist alone can burn about 250 hectares in a day. But he says the reality is there needs to be hundreds of thousands of hectares burned. 

The Salish Fire Keepers Society is hoping that a return to a traditional form of forest management is reclaimed, including in places like Eeyou Istchee. Gilchrist said during a time fighting fires in Quebec that he was told of traditional fire-keeping methods around the tundra. 

“My Elder told me when I was young that water is a cleanser for human beings and fire for Mother Earth.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.