Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC) Executive Director Blaine Wiggins recently returned from a trip to Australia where he met with Indigenous firefighters. Retired firefighter Uncle Norm Clarke, who was Queensland’s first fulltime Indigenous firefighter, shared his wisdom on the importance of traditional fire management:
“Aboriginal people know about thinning the undergrowth with fire. We know how to identify trees in the bush which burn fiercely, and others which act as a fire retardant.”
Fire is a truly awe-inspiring force of nature that has the capability to both wreak havoc upon and breathe life into an environment. The media is regularly filled with images of wide-scale destruction from fires, often from Australia, California, and western Canada — the benefits of fire to an environment are quickly forgotten.
Climate change is creating longer and drier fire seasons, making wildfires more frequent and destructive (PCC, 2019). Modern fire suppression techniques that have been developed to protect communities and valuable timber supplies have stifled the natural cycle of destruction and regeneration that is essential to the maintenance of healthy forest ecosystems (Lake & Christianson, 2019). A renewed exploration of incorporating traditional Indigenous methods into fire management practices is required to combat the rising risk of wildfire in a world battling climate change.
Patrick Coolwell and Darren Burns of Quandamooka Land and Sea Management in Australia spoke with AFAC about how fire maintains the land and has been doing so for thousands of years. Many of our current forests are unhealthy due to the simple fact that they have not burned in recent times; deadfall which would normally be burned away provides ample fuel that is increasing the intensity of the fires. However, intentionally set, carefully planned fires reduce the fuel available. One method that was shared during the visit to Australia was using a mosaic lighting pattern to create slow moving, cooler fires that promote the regeneration of native flora.
Indigenous populations around the world have historically understood the great benefit of fire and have used traditional burning practices to shape their environment (Lake & Christianson, 2019). Indigenous Peoples use a wealth of Traditional Knowledge to recognize the signs that conditions are right for a controlled burn, signs such as the moisture level in pine needles (Cabrera, 2020). These traditional fire management practices increase biodiversity and food resources.
Sharing knowledge and learning from each other will allow fire services at home and abroad to keep these traditional practices alive for the generations to come and to adapt to the changing environment in the face of climate change. For instance, in January of this year, Yukon First Nations Wildfire sent firefighters to Australia to both assist with firefighting efforts and to learn traditional practices (YFNW, 2020). The benefits of collaboration and incorporating traditional fire practices are key in fighting wildfires in the age of climate change.
Cabrera, Y. (31 Jan 2020). With wildfires on the rise, indigenous fire management is poised to make a comeback. Grist. Retrieved from https://grist.org/justice/with-wildfires-on-the-rise-indigenous-fire-management-is-poised-to-make-a-comeback/
Lake F.K., & Christianson A.C. (2019) Indigenous Fire Stewardship. In: Manzello S. (eds) Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fires. Springer Nature: Switzerland. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-51727-8_225-1
Prairie Climate Centre (PCC). (2019). Forest Fires and Climate Change. Climate atlas of Canada Retrieved from https://climateatlas.ca/forest-fires-and-climate-change.
Yukon First Nations Wildfire (YFNW). (14 Jan 2020). First Nations wildfire to assist Australian Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Radio CHON FM.