Facing the Flames of Wildfire Together

January 31, 2023

-- Vancouver, B.C. (unceded  xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territory) -- 

With recent record-breaking fire years, evacuations, massive loss, and billions poured into fire suppression, mitigating wildfire has rapidly become one of the defining issues of our time. Due to a combination of climate change and forest health, the risk of catastrophic wildfires will only continue to grow. At this year’s annual Bruce and Lis Welch Community Dialogue event, keynote speakers Joe Gilchrist, Vice President of the Interior Salish Firekeepers Society, and Paul Hessburg, Senior Research Ecologist with US Forest Services, shared their knowledge and sparked a brilliant dialogue on the critical and timely topic of living with wildfire.

In our first fully hybrid (in-person and online) Welch Dialogue, we were so grateful that folks from Lytton and other fire-impacted communities were able to join us. At the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue building and at home, all participants were welcomed into dialogue by Elder Syexwáliya, of the Squamish First Nation, who asked us to enter with open hearts and minds, committing to work together to tackle this tough topic.

Through all the topics discussed over the evening, at the heart of the dialogue emerged a clear need for increased collaboration on the issue, especially between Indigenous Peoples and policy makers involved in the work of land management. This point was highlighted right from the start by opening speaker Eamon O’Donoghue, Associate Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Forests.

He pointed out that collective values like community resilience, safety, conservation, forest health, and vibrant rural economies are not being met by our current methods and policies. This illustrates a clear need to change the way we currently manage land use.

“I watched the wildfires rewrite those land use plans that took years and sometimes decades to form in a matter of weeks,” he told us.

O’Donoghue underlined that a change in the right direction would be to incorporate increased cultural burning and prescribed burning into more dynamic land management approaches that deepen engagement and transparency and balance multiple stakeholder values to address the landscape as a whole (such as the Forest Landscape Plans currently being rolled out). 

Keynote speaker Joe Gilchrist stands at the forefront of the movement to bring back cultural burning. The knowledge passed down to him by his family along with years spent working all over British Columbia and across Canada with BC Wildfire Service have contributed to his deep understanding of wildfire management. “For thousands of years, Indigenous people looked after the land using fire,” he told us. Growing up, he knew that there was such a thing as good fire, and that it is necessary in fire-dependent ecosystems like the ones present across BC. 

However, cultural burning was made illegal in early 1910, and its criminalization—coupled with decades of active fire suppression in an effort to protect communities—has yielded unintended but very real consequences. The removal of active stewardship from these lands has created more than a century of wildfire deficit and allowed a buildup of wood debris in the forests. Cumulatively, this results in reduced access to traditional food and medicine plants, risk of larger, more severe, and less controllable fires, and an increased threat to rural communities, through which Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately impacted.  

Gilchrist explained the Indigenous use of controlled burns during low-risk shoulder seasons, and how the practice creates more productive, healthy, and resilient forest landscapes. Elders and Knowledge Keepers in the Indigenous community understand these practices, and their knowledge could be invaluable in forming good practices for fire management.

Co-keynote speaker, Paul Hessberg, has feet on the ground as well as a lengthy background of research in forest management. He told us that today we have an opportunity to “re-find landscape resilience,” an idea that he says is both old and new. Hessberg agrees that we need to look at “inviting fire back into the landscape” in a healthy way. Living with wildfire is an inescapable reality, but the question now is what kind of fire will we live with?

He noted that, crucially, plans will have to work across land jurisdictions, meaning it must be a collaborative effort. This represents a cultural shift in the scale of forest planning and management­—it must be a large and strategic venture that is proactive and future-focused.

“That’s a transgenerational commitment, and we get that [understanding] from Indigenous partners,” Hessberg pointed out. Indigenous elders handed down the knowledge, tools, and conditions for future generations to carry on their work of good forest maintenance. But because these practices have been suppressed for so long, we are now in a position of playing catch up.

With all this insight and information in mind, the floor was opened to participants to offer their own insight and ideas, ask questions, and engage in dialogue with each other. Topics ranged from smoke mitigation and soil health to the role of beavers in wildfire mitigation, but at the centre of the discussion were three big questions:

  • What does it look like to live with wildfire today and in the coming generations?
  • How can we move toward a healthy relationship with fire?
  • How do we increase collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and practices when it comes to wildfire mitigation?

Though the issue is layered and complex, there is hope that if we continue this dialogue, and follow words with action, we can form a “partnership with fire” that changes the impact it has on our lands, communities, and climate.

“I’m optimistic about the future,” said Hessberg. “We have the tools, we have the creativity, and we have the opportunity to innovate across sectors…to work together to problem solve this in original ways.”

The Centre’s new Mitigating Wildfire Program will continue to explore and work toward the ideas discussed in this dialogue, including nurturing innovation and solution-seeking, increasing sharing of knowledge and practices, and building groundwork for collaborative, strategic approaches to mitigating catastrophic wildfire.  Look out for more of their work at the Centre in the future!

Watch the Recording: