Indigenous knowledge can help fight fires globally, University of Waterloo study finds
In this Sept. 11, 2020, file photo, firefighters light a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif. Crews across the west are lighting controlled burns and taking other steps to prepare for the 2021 fire season that follows the worst one on record. Prescribed burning gets rid of vegetation that can send flames into the forest canopy, where fire can spread easily, and makes the forest more fire resilient. (AP Photo/Nic Coury, File)
TORONTO -- Indigenous fire stewardship could help protect the world from the type of severe wildfires that have been occurring more frequently in recent years, a University of Waterloo study has found.
Researchers suggest that cultural burning, purposefully burning away entire patches of trees and dry vegetation, could also help promote greater biodiversity. And while some countries and cultures are embracing these practices, Canada has fallen behind, says Kira Hoffman, a co-author of the study.
Australia, Brazil and California are good examples of places using Indigenous-burning programs, she said.
“Around the world we’re seeing a lot of examples of moving back to more fire-dependent cultures,” Hoffman told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.
According to Hoffman, Indigenous knowledge not only helps preserve culture, but it helps the entire ecosystem. Yet researchers say it’s been overlooked for a long time.
“The importance of trying to include Indigenous voices in this is key,” said Hoffman, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry and who worked as a firefighter in the province for five seasons.
“I think we need to make changes this fall,” she said. “We need to shift the conversation around what fire is and how we live with it.”
The study points out that since colonization over a century ago, a focus on fire suppression – rather than how to live harmoniously with fire - combined with warmer and drier conditions has led to increasingly severe wildfires and plummeting biodiversity.
“Importantly, Indigenous-led fire stewardship continues to demonstrate the value of routinely applying controlled fire to adapt to changing environments while promoting desired landscapes, habitats, and species while also supporting subsistence practices, communities and livelihoods,” Hoffman said.
Andrew Trant, an associate professor of environmental resources at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the study, agrees that change is needed.
“Identifying and implementing human-fire interactions supporting a variety of valuable social and ecological outcomes is becoming increasingly urgent,” he said. “Given what we’re seeing in Western Canada, Manitoba, and Ontario, our forest fire situation that can only go from bad to worse without changes to existing strategies.”
The findings of the study were published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.