How Indigenous knowledge can give B.C. an edge during wildfire season

Click to play video: 'Wildfire expert calls for more holistic approach to management and prevention'
Wildfire expert calls for more holistic approach to management and prevention
WATCH: A B.C. wildfire expert says we need to take a more holistic approach to fighting and preventing fires by incorporating more input from Indigenous communities and specialists. Kristen Robinson reports.

As B.C.’s wildfire season kicks off to an early and roaring start, an expert in wildfire management is shedding light on how Indigenous knowledge can give everyone an edge in the battle against the blaze.

Justin Perry, a member of the Métis Nation British Columbia, believes “holistic wildfire management” will result in better outcomes for firefighters and the Indigenous nations and communities they support in times of crisis.

“There’s this idea or notion that the only thing we can really do is suppress or try to control fire, but it’s bringing in other elements to try and look at it in a more holistic way to manage it, and there’s many things we can do that encompass this idea,” he told Global News on Tuesday.

“It’s not about changing the way things have been done, it’s trying to improve things.”

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Perry, an instructor of forest and natural areas management at British Columbia Institute of Technology, has led wildfire mapping missions across the province. According to BCIT, he specializes in use of drones and infrared scanning technology, and in a single summer, helped map thousands of ground fires that were later extinguished by the BC Wildfire Service.

Perry said fire is an “integral” part of many Indigenous cultures, including for ceremonial purposes. Some nations also have a history of controlled burning on their land, or of managing wildfires in ways that are unique to their communities, he added.

Crews that battle fires on Indigenous lands or support communities battling their own should actively seek that knowledge, he said.

“It’s speaking with the community leaders and experts and firekeepers themselves to ask them how they manage the land,” Perry explained.

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“I think you need to look at each community not completely separately, but you have to respect their individual teachings of their community.”

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Skeetchestn Indian Band citizen Mike Anderson agrees.

The adviser and negotiator for the Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation has been advocating to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into B.C. firefighting for years. His nation was threatened by the 2021 Sparks Lake fire north of Kamloops.

He said he’s currently working with the BC Wildfire Service to set up an initial attack crew through the band office, and despite some “back and forth,” efforts to have the province take on a more holistic approach have generally gone well.

“Hopefully along with all that, there will be a realization that Indigenous people have knowledge that all firefighters require,” he said in an interview.

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“Realistically, the Indigenous people on any landscape are some of the few people that have that knowledge and it’s of immense value in dealing with … any kind of emergency management situation, particularly forest fires.”

Examples include the most efficient routes for accessing a fire, where the sources of water are on the land, where the roads are and which ones are impassable, and which areas have flora that burn up easily, he said.

“Hunters have to know all that information to do their hunting. They also spend an awful lot of time on the land. The other thing they know is when the wind is going to change, or they have a pretty good idea,” Anderson added.

Click to play video: 'First Nations to play larger role in firefighting and preparedness'
First Nations to play larger role in firefighting and preparedness

Last year, the federal government committed $8.4 million to support emergency preparedness and response in First Nations in B.C.

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In March, the B.C. government also announced nearly $3 million to help local governments and First Nations across the province buy supplies and install equipment that will maintain or improve their emergency operations centres.

Perry, too, said the BC Wildfire Service is “on the right track” when it comes to incorporating Indigenous people into its firefighting response, but there is room for improvement.

“I think there needs to be some more sovereignty given to each community and how they manage it on the land,” he said.

“But at the same time, wildfire is a very complex thing and if there’s not enough support or guidance that is given to it, it’s something that can grow out of control very rapidly.”

As it stands, there are currently 79 active wildfires across the province.

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