Course:CONS200/2021/Cultural Burning in BC: What is it and what are its benefits?

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What is Cultural Burning?

Prescribed burning in the Grand Canyon National Park

Cultural burning is the process of lighting small-scale, low-intensity fires[1]. These fires have been used for over ten millennia by First Nations groups within Canada[1]. Historically, cultural burning was used for various purposes, such as ecological and cultural, as it was a tool that was easily available and could be regularly utilized[2]. Fire was used for purposes ranging from improving crop yield and altering wildlife habitat, to maintaining traditional knowledge[3][4]. Currently, cultural burning is not widely used; however, the advantages of cultural burning are becoming more recognized and various nations are beginning to employ this practice.

Historical Use of Cultural Burning in British Columbia

In British Columbia, cultural burning has been used for over 7000 years[2]. For example, the First Nations group Nlaka’pamux used fire to achieve ecological objectives, such as maximizing desirable plants and animals, long before European contact[5]. Fires were generally lit in spring and fall and were allowed to burn themselves out[2]. The European early settlers in British Columbia also used cultural burning[6]. They made use of fire to clear the land for the development of settlement, agriculture, and livestock[6].

However, the provincial authorities in British Columbia began to strongly discourage "unhindered" fires, which were often attributed to First Nations[7]. Thus, there was a decline in cultural burning usage as they were no longer permitted[7]. Additionally, the frequency of fires also declined due to factors such as the conversion of grasslands and roads, which act as fire breaks[6].

As a result of the decrease in the use of controlled fires, tree density and the build-up of fuels increased[8]. Furthermore, trees and shrubs began to encroach into the grasslands[8]. The lack of fire resulted in various undesirable ecological and cultural conditions for the Ponderosa Pine, interior Douglas Fir, and Bunchgrass biogeoclimatic zones in British Columbia[9]. Therefore, when fires do occur, they are usually are high intensity and are difficult to manage[6].

Current Usage of Cultural Burning

In recent years, there has been an increase in controlled burning in Canadian protected areas[2]. Some of the burnings conducted presently have been used for similar reasons to historic burning practices: to improve natural conditions (e.g. removal of undesired weeds and fuels) and to minimize fire threats[2]. Although the present-day use of fire continues to follow a similar rationale to the traditional use, several of these rationales, such as the improvement of food (e.g. crops), have become less common[2]. The main motivators for controlled burning are now debris control and hazard mitigation[2].

Australia is an exemplary case study of a nation that is currently implementing cultural burning and has seen various successful ecological and cultural outcomes. There are many groups in Australia (Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Ranger groups) that perform fire management[10]. However, as these ranger groups are generally limited to northern and central Australia, the ACT Aboriginal Cultural Fire Initiative was started in Australia's Capital Territory[10]. The ACT Aboriginal Cultural Initiative was implemented in 2015 in order to re-introduce cultural burning into the planning and management of parks and natural reserves[10]. The ACT Aboriginal Cultural Initiative consists of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous staff working together while also reaching out to Ngunnawal and Ngambri (Australian Aboriginal groups) leadership[11]. This initiative has reduced fuel loads and removed hazards throughout many culturally significant areas[10]. However, perhaps more significantly, the ACT Aboriginal Cultural Fire Initiative has facilitated cultural revival[10]. For younger Aboriginal generations, the ACT Aboriginal Cultural Fire Initiative has promoted the healing of the community and strengthened the connection and management of Australia[10]. Thus, this initiative has not only led to strong ecological outcomes but has also increased the profile of Aboriginal peoples' fire management and provided opportunities for Aboriginal people to learn and practice their traditional fire management processes[11].

Differences Between Historical and Current Cultural Burning

The current and historical use of cultural burning possesses certain differences from each other. These differences include the reasons for using cultural burning, the size of the fire used, and the frequency of fire. Historically, pre-colonization First Nations used controlled fires for a number of reasons such as cultural and ecological [2]. However, fires are now generally used to avert uncontrolled wildfires and control debris [2]. Historical burning and current burning also differ in the spatial level[2]. Controlled fire, prior to European colonization, was commonly used and hundreds of acres of land were burned annually in the Fraser Canyon region. In the present day, fires are seldom employed and spot-sized areas are burned[2]. Additionally, over time, the frequency of fires has declined due to various factors such as government disagreement and climate change[1]. Climate change has resulted in reduced fire activity in many areas of Canada and there has been a continued emphasis by many biophysical researchers on climate change being a causal factor in increasing fire cycles/mean fire intervals[1]. Large burn areas in Canada usually occur during drought conditions which can result from high-pressure systems in the atmosphere blocking the movement of rainfall-bearing storms[1]. These drought conditions can be produced through patterns such as El Niño[1]. As climate change begins to occur, these climatic cycles will become altered and there may be significant implications for Canadian fire frequency[1]. Thus, climate change has previously (and will continue to) alter the frequency of fire occurrence through the alteration of climatic cycles.

Influences and Benefits of Cultural Burning

Parts of the Species Enhancement in British Columbia[12]

Historically, fire has been a tool that provides various resources and benefits in managing larger incidence of species and landscapes for Indigenous people. Cultural burning can aid the promotion of plant productivity and thus, increase the diversity of ecosystems. This leads to increased complexity of species, landscape, and more resources which can be used in people's daily life (e.g., fibrous materials, medicine, and agriculture)[3].

However, the benefits of cultural burning still remains controversial for ecologists. There is a lack of comprehensive field evidence on the benefits of prescribed burning in meeting wildfire hazard reduction or conservational goals[13]. Despite the lack of studies conducted, there seems to be a growing consensus among fire ecologists and ethnobiologists that repeated burning has assisted in maintaining and expanding certain ecosystems[14]. It is believed that cultural burning has helped maintain grassland and savanna woodland ecosystems and is the process that promoted, expanded, and in some areas, formed these ecosystems.

Examples of cultural burning's ecological effects could be seen through the oral accounts by contemporary Indigenous people in British Columbia. According to those people, there were several cases reported that landscape burning in British Columbia began in 1969 from the Pemberton Valley region within Stl'atl'imx (Lillooet) territory[12]. The landscape burning has influenced lots of areas such as Interior Plateau and Southeast Vancouver Island[12]. However, the cultural burning has also enhanced the species categories in BC. Almost nineteen plant species (within two general categories—berries and roots) were reported by Indigenous peoples to be enhanced by periodic landscape burning and was beneficial to the diversity of British Columbia's areas[12]. Besides species enhancement, cultural burning also influences the composition of certain plants. Cultural burning can increase production of traditional plant resources[12]. However, this has to be done with caution and careful monitoring otherwise the effects of too much cultural burning can negatively impact the survival of some resource species in British Columbia[12].


Prescribed Burning around Eastern Oregon Snowfall

Indigenous fire has historically been a declaration of the sovereignty and governance of First Nations peoples. It is believed that Fire is the gift from Mother Earth bestowed to her children. Indigenous Fire Stewardship (IFS) goals are the same as fire management with the predominant aim being adapting and responding to climate and local environmental conditions while promoting desired landscapes, habitats and species[15]. Indigenous Fire Stewardship has also created cultural fire regimes by influencing and diversifying the frequency, seasonality, extent, locality, intensity, and resultant severities of fires. It has protected about 85% of the world's biodiversity[15]. Cultural burning has influenced the landscape of the Southwest United States; this knowledge comes from generations of trial and error. They knew how to live with fires and use fire as a tool for building (e.g., near Indigenous seasonal homes and along travel corridors). Another example happens in Northwestern B.C., Cultural burning in the Yarbrough Forest occurs in the spring and fall, often when there is still snow on the ground. These low-severity fires are used to remove dead and dry fuels and to promote the growth of new plants, which provide forage for wildlife.


The potential socio-economic influences that cultural burning can bring are exemplified in the method adopted by Tuareg people in the hyper-arid central Sahara (SW Libya). The Tuareg people burned dead plants, of which Acacia tortilis was predominantly used, to create charcoal. Charcoal was used by the local people in the mid-1970s for trading in order to obtain necessary goods for living[16]. This trade was extremely important to the survival of the Tuareg people as they struggled with lack of water and consequently, lack of natural resources. Thus, the burning of Acacia tortilis contributed to the survival of the local community.

Limitations and Challenges


One limitation is that it is hard to find absolute evidence to prove cultural burning's ecological influence as many of these fires were frequent, and it is difficult to determine the reasons for formation[14]. The difficulty of determining whether the fire should be categorized into cultural burning makes it challenging for scientists and conservationists to measure the efficiency of cultural burning. This also results in issues in decisions regarding the continuity of implementing cultural burning in certain places. Furthermore, despite the benefits of cultural burning, there are still various potential issues that occur due to the use of fire. Some of these include greenhouse gas emissions, and smoke impacts[13].


Indigenous people believe that people are dependent on Earth resources, therefore everything is like a gift from the creator no matter if it is a living creature or not. Although cultural burning reflects the culture of indigenous people, there are still some limitations on it. For example,  the model of extensive fire management in Kakadu National Park of Australia has been criticized by the local Aboriginal people[17]. Due to the fact that the complex indigenous fire management has been replaced by institutionalized management programs[17]. It would be difficult for these programs to meet the cultural and livelihood needs of the indigenous people. Once the market forces are expanding in these programs, the burning will become a feature of Kakadu rather than cultural practice[17].


As cultural burning refers to the small-scale fires that usually occur in forests, it can lead to a reduction in timber and other wood-related production. The decrease in forest resources may bring negative effects to people who live there. For example, if a certain region depends on the export or production of wood products for its livelihood, the economic loss could outweigh the benefits of cultural burning[18]. Additionally, cultural burning can result in a decrease in the forest area which may lead to Indigenous people being forced to leave and losing their homes. The socio-economic influences of cultural burning may also relate to tourism and agriculture aspects. As British Columbia is a place where owns lots of natural resources and beautiful landscapes, the loss of forest area can result in the degradation of aesthetics which could negatively impact tourism.

Potential and Future Development for Cultural Burning in Canada

Indigenous Tribes Restore Prescribed Burns in California

Modern-day use of land and political values have limited the usage of fires within protected areas in Canada to levels below historical conditions[1]. As protected areas ecosystem management is evolving, the importance of controlled fires is beginning to be more recognized[1]. In the past 35 years, land managers have started to reinstate controlled fire usage due to increasing suppression costs and decreasing forest health[2]. As the usage of fire becomes more prevalent, a stronger understanding of it and political support will be required[1].

In the future, the establishment of a wide-scale, community-led fire regime could assist in meeting many ecological goals [19]. A fire regime would decrease fire hazards and increase available habitats for desirable species for the First Nation groups in the area[19]. Additionally, Canadian researchers and park managers have started consulting First Nations' elders whose ancestors have many years of experience using fire within Canadian ecosystems[1]. As the interests of present-day park managers may be similar to that of the First Nations' ancestors (e.g. conserving the biodiversity of the ecosystem without destroying human values), the approach undertaken may become progressively alike to the historic practices as fire management programs advance[1].


Cultural burning is integral to Indigenous people due to its deep cultural roots. Through the practice of cultural burning, the traditional knowledge and spiritual values of Indigenous people can be maintained and passed down through the generations[3]. Cultural burning is also correlated with positive ecological change such as an increase in biodiversity. In a meta-analysis study conducted, a total of 79% of studies indicated there was an increase in biodiversity as a result of cultural burning and a total of 63% of studies reported the use of fire led to an increase in habitat heterogeneity[15]. Additionally, cultural burning has indirectly resulted in positive socio-economic benefits as demonstrated by the Tuareg people[16].

Although the use of cultural burning has decreased over time, various studies show that cultural burning can result in successful ecological and cultural outcomes. Australia has demonstrated that the implementation of a fire regime has bolstered the healing of the Indigenous communities while also increasing biodiversity and reducing hazards and fuel loads. Additionally, as global warmings effects are starting to become more prevalent, the occurrence of wildfires will start to increase. The implementation of a fire regime would decrease fire hazards and fuel build-up resulting in the mitigation of wildfires. Thus, as protected areas ecosystem management evolves, a greater focus on cultural burning and controlled fire usage would be beneficial on ecological, cultural, and potentially socio-economical levels.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 White, C. A., Perrakis, D. D. B., Kafka, V. G., & Ennis, T. (2011). Burning at the edge: Integrating biophysical and eco-cultural fire processes in Canada’s parks and protected areas. Fire Ecology, 7(1), 74-106.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Lewis, M., Christianson, A., & Spinks, M. (2018). Return to flame: Reasons for burning in Lytton first nation, British Columbia. Journal of Forestry, 116(2), 143-150.
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