Course:FRST370/2022/Utilizing Indigenous ecological knowledge as a preventative measure against forest fires: Prescribed Fires as Forest Management

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Summary of Case Study

Our case study discusses Indigenous ways of forest management, specifically through the use of prescribed fires, which have been suppressed as a successful way of managing forests and ecosystems. The suppression of prescribed fire has been a commonality across Canada due to uninformed understandings drawn by settlers who have misconceptions about the best ways to manage fire and land management. Through the inclusion of contemporary case studies - from Lytton First Nation and Pikangikum First Nation - we will summarize how their views of reciprocity and respect of the land are integral examples of collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous entities as a means of mitigating the impacts of climate change. These case studies, along with information to further understand Indigenous worldviews around fire and human and non-human relationships, demonstrate how cultural burning has historically been utilized and the possibilities that can arise through its implementation today.


  • Cultural Burning
  • Misconceptions of Indigenous Forest Management
  • Fire Suppression
  • Land Agency
  • Indigenous Pedagogies


In the context of our case study, we will define prescribed fire as “any fire intentionally ignited by management actions in accordance with applicable laws, policies, and regulations to meet specific objectives” (National Wildfire Coordination Group [NWCG] 2015 in (Lake et al., 2017). The usage of prescribed fires is common amongst Indigenous nations across Turtle Island and has been utilized for a variety of reasons, such as aiding land regeneration, hunting, and forest fire management.

The use of fire to control a region or territory of land is not new as “Indigenous fire practitioners draw from local and generational sources of knowledge that differ from western fuel classification systems and fire weather codes that guide most wildfire agencies” (Hoffman, 2022).  Over the 10 millennia (at least) that Indigenous People have occupied North America,  humans have been setting low-intensity, controlled fires cyclically and with a greater plan in mind (White et al., 2011). This greater plan can be a reflection of the deep connection to the land that Indigenous nations have, as they have been managing the land and resources since time immemorial. Indigenous nations understand the benefits of prescribed fires to a greater extent than settlers could - as to them, fire is perceived as a threat or dangerous rather than a useful tool for land management.

Following contact, prescribed fires were banned and settler-colonial forest management tactics were the only legal approach to land management. Through the evaluation of different contemporary case studies in Canada, we will state the benefits of prescribed fires and how upholding Indigenous Knowledge of the land is integral to mitigating climate change. We also state that moving forward in areas of land management and forest management, prescribed fires as a means of aiding this, should be more broadly implemented as there are many benefits of these practices. The effects of forest fires are also more disproportionately harmful towards Indigenous nations and “according to Public Safety Canada’s estimates, more specifically there are around 200 Indigenous communities that are really exposed and have a high risk of wildfires” (Mihychuk, 2018). This statistic exemplifies the importance of changing the way in which forest fires are managed as Indigenous nations face threats of these fires on a level that is higher than other Canadians.

History of Fire Suppression and Misconceptions About Fire

Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island have a long history of maintaining the land through a relationship with fire. Fire is a useful tool for land management, and this knowledge was held by Indigenous Nations and became rejected upon the arrival of settlers. Unbeknownst to the settlers, at the time that European settlers got to North America, millions of acres of land were carefully cultivated and maintained for human use. This abundance of rich lands made settling easier in the Great Plains and the West Coast (Williams, 2000). This care and cultivation was largely done through the use of prescribed fires to ensure the regeneration of species, and a wide range of maturation amongst these species. The freshly burnt spots would bring new life and this would attract food sources that the Indigenous Peoples relied on for survival. These fires were not set randomly but were carefully planned and intentionally executed and managed while they burned. The idea that North America was uncultivated and “that land was not used to its productive potential by its Native inhabitants- was false,” (Martinez, 1998 as cited in Williams, 2000). This misconception about the land completely ignored the fact that “prairie and forest were to a large extent the creation of indigenous peoples” (Martinez, 1998 as cited in Williams, 2000). The concept of an untouched wilderness was unfounded as the settlers failed to recognize the forest management style that Indigenous Peoples hold, which is seeing the land as kin and equal. Because of these misunderstandings and notions of ‘untouched pristine wilderness’, it meant that the land was up for grabs and the use of terra nullius was justified.

With colonization came fire suppression and by the 1700-1800’s prescribed fires disappeared as a means of forest management across the Dominion of Canada (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). Although fire had disappeared by this time, “cultural fire use likely declined dramatically beginning as early as the 1500s in eastern Canada as long-term human use patterns changed due to disease-driven population declines, tribal movements, education programs, resettlement on reserves, and a myriad of other cultural changes that have altered First Nations’ land use practices,” (McMillan 1995, Turner et al. 2003, Pyne 2007 as cited in White et al. 2011). For example, the Canadian government actively attempted to diminish Indigenous understandings of the land through the production of a massive propaganda campaign to reduce fires which didn’t include Indigenous knowledge pushing settler fire management operations forward (Gottesfeld, 1994). An example of this occurred in the Wet'suwet'en nation who used fires for berry patch burning, yet could not practice this form of land management due to uninformed laws (Gottesfeld, 1994). An incentivization by BC Forest Service was created to give out rewards to surrounding regions near Indigenous Nations in hopes that the public would relay any information regarding incendiary actions in the early 1930’s around the land of the Wet'suwet'en (Gottesfeld, 1994). Not only was this incentive in place, but the government of British Columbia created excuses to explain the lack of funding that was supposed to be allocated toward implementing Indigenous knowledge at the forefront of fire management.

Settler colonial regimes and Indigenous nations who resided in Canada held contrasting views on fire. Specifically, Euro-Americans perceived fire as destructive and hazardous while Indigenous Peoples knew the benefits of controlled burning and knew how to administer and control the fires (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). Colonization disempowered Indigenous pedagogies within settler society as it rejected the notion that Indigenous Nations understood fire for what it is; as a tool to manage and cultivate the landscape. There is a lack of familiarity and respect of Indigenous ecological knowledge in Western fire agencies, specifically in the context of Canada (Hoffman, 2022). The societal norm which has developed over centuries, being that fire is bad and destructive, comes from settler notions of fire and has resulted in much of the population being afraid of fire and not seeing the benefits of it. Despite the long standing relationship that Indigenous Peoples hold with fire and the land, much of their younger populations have also internalized this societal fear of fire (Lake et al, 2017). This is done partially due to the norm but also the fact that Indigenous knowledge systems, which would detail the importance of fire to the land and the people, have been severely diminished over time.

Through the displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories, harmful policies from government, and the deaths of thousands of Indigenous Peoples, much of the knowledge surrounding the application and use of fires has been lost. Indigenous cultures tend to translate their knowledge and histories through oral storytelling, however, through various acts of genocide that diminished the population, there are generational disconnects causing the loss of this knowledge. The displacement of Indigenous Peoples not only has negative impacts for the affected peoples, but it was also found that “the displacement of Indigenous People who practice fire stewardship when tending to the land has led to declines in biodiversity” (Hoffman et al., 2021). The fact that Indigenous Peoples make up less than 5% of the world population, but still protect more than 80% of the world's biodiversity shows that the knowledge they hold is the most beneficial for protecting the land.

Indigenous Views on Fire and Reciprocity with the Land

Similar to a treaty, Indigenous Peoples view their relationship with the land as an agreement between two entities where they each have their own responsibilities to ensure the survival and benefit of one another. Although each nation and community across Turtle Island will have their own conceptions around fire and use it for a variety of reasons - fire remains important across many, if not all nations and is a “spiritual responsibility to the land, a tool that was given to the people to fulfill the caregiving responsibilities for the land,” (Martinez, 1998, as cited in Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). Indigenous Peoples have different ideologies surrounding land and land ownership from settlers - and along with that is the responsibility and obligation to the land. This includes caring for it by never over extracting resources like wild game or berries, sharing the wealth of the land with neighbouring nations, and carefully cultivating the land and the plants that grow from it.

An important tool for managing and caring for the landscape is fire. Indigenous Peoples intentionally set fires and carefully watch and direct them to stay within certain areas and within their control. Although this case study focuses on prescribed fire, “the late elder Whitehead Moose explained, lightning fires are part of the Creator’s cycle of renewal that provides humans and animals with new growth and abundant new food,” (Miller, 2010) meaning that both prescribed and naturally started fires are important to the landscape. The knowledge that Elders and community members have around fire is large and have deep understandings of it, for example “people in Pikangikum nation maintain knowledge of many different kinds of fire and their behaviours and impacts on forest renewal - Elders have described and named fires that burn under the soil surface, those that burn the ground surface, those that burn up and downhill, crown fires, and superficial surface burns” (Miller, 2010). There are language barriers between Ojibway, in the case of Pikangikum, and English due to the fact that the English language limits the information in the word itself - fire does not encapsulate the knowledge that Ojibwe words have about fire, such as the ones described above.

In Western Society, fire is taught as something to fear because of the knowledge of the destruction it can bring, but the “Indigenous worldview emphasizes dual nature; creative and destruction of all forces based on reciprocal relationships between human and non-human whereas Western society sees fire only as negative and uncontrollable which ironically, has led to greater unpredictability of nature,” (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). Fire in Indigenous cultures is an important symbol and holds not only practical uses such as cooking, warmth, and managing the landscape but also uses that tie into the transmission of knowledge and societal organization. Within the Anishinaabek Nation, there is the Confederacy of the Three Fires which comprises the Ojibwe, Odawa and the Potawatomi Peoples. Each tribe has their own role to the Confederacy, and the Potawatomi were “Keepers of the Fire”, meaning that they are “responsible for protecting and nurturing the Neshnabek [Anishinaabek] council fire, for it is at the root of our culture and defining to us as a people,” (Citizen Potawatomi Nation, n.d.).  In addition to the significance of fire to the Anishinaabek nation, fire was also used as a means to stay warm in the long winter months. As activities were limited due to the weather, the winter was used as a time for storytelling which generated the transmission of knowledge. Within these stories was information about the history of the community and nation, lineage, supernatural beings, worldview, traditional language, ceremony and much more. Without fire to keep the people warm in this time then the stories could not have been told and there would be a disconnect between generations.

Application, Benefits and Uses of Cultural Burning

People have used fire to shape the landscape and environment around them since time immemorial. Before early colonization and the suppression of cultural burnings, many Indigenous populations used fire to modify the land around them to promote growth and abundance of certain species, and to improve the biodiversity and health of their land. Documented reasons for anthropogenic fire use include crop management, hunting, pest control, site clearing, warfare and long-distance signalling, fireproofing, and clearing riparian areas (Williams 2001). In the case of the Nlaka’pamux People in Lytton, prescribed burnings were used to increase the abundance of desired plants, such as wild celery, oval-leaf blueberry, red huckleberry, and more (Lewis, 2018).

Fires were set in different seasons for specific purposes, and seasonality was an important component of cultural burnings that differed them from wildfires. Burning in the fall could increase forage for deer which, in turn, increased their abundance and provided a food source. In the spring, lands were burned to prepare an area for seedbeds, or areas were burned to initiate the movement and seasonal rotation of bison (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). Indigenous People utilized fire to modify the environment for their own survival as it “promoted food security by ensuring a diverse and productive landscape” (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001).

Although cultural burnings commonly didn’t take place during the drier months when chances of natural lightning ignition were high, there were exceptions. The Kalapuya People of the Willamette Valley of Oregon would burn grasslands in the summer. The use of this burn was to initiate a second flush of growth later in the fall, which maintained the local herbivore species (Williams 2000 as cited in Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). The frequency of fires varied depending on their purpose, ranging from occurring annually, to every couple of years or once every decade or so.This alternated fire frequency created a mosaic of burned patches that generated a variation in age and composition of species in an area which resulted in the diversification of plants, medicines, attracted game, and provided materials essential for human survival. This mosaic also maintained fuel buildup on unburned patches, so the fires didn’t get out of control when they were later burned (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001).

Contemporary Examples within Canada's Parks

Burning at the edge: Integrating biophysical and eco-cultural fire processes in Canada’s parks and protected areas by White et al. (2011) gives 4 examples of how fire is being reintroduced and utilized as a tool for forest management. The areas where this is being done are La Mauricie National Park, Prince Albert National Park, Banff National Park and Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

La Mauricie National Park (LMNP) is 200 km north east of Montreal, Quebec. The park began prescribed burning in 1991, focusing on restoring the eastern white pine stands with the “objective to replicate a historic heterogeneous fire regime with an overall fire cycle of approximately <50 years” (White et al., 2011). This was done through small, low-intensity fires that the eastern white pine stands should be able withstand. The fire removes competing species which allows the white pine trees to regenerate following the burns and good seed years. “The park burning program is now expanding not only to include the maintenance of a few declining red oak stands, but also larger areas to restore the fire regime and age class distribution” (White et al., 2011). The use of fire in LMNP is benefitting not only the eastern white pine trees but also the overall forest health.

Prince Albert National Park (PANP) is a 3461 km2 area in Saskatchewan. Historically, (prior to 1890) the park burned on 15 and 25 year cycles, in the north and south halves. In as early as 1930, park wardens would light fires along the southern boundary in the early spring so that high intensity fires from a nearby agricultural clearing would not devastate the area. Following a fire suppression between 1940-1970, research showed that fescue prairie had declined severely as a result, and fire restoration was introduced. After a couple decades, research showed that burn treatments “reduced shrub and aspen forest coverage and increased the frequency of native grasses” (White et al., 2011 ). In recent years, the park staff will burn areas in the spring within the habitat of a restored herd of plains bison, which resembles a historical pattern of burning to enhance bison habitat.

Banff National Park (BNP) is Canada’s first national park and is within the province of Alberta. Planning for prescribed burning began in 1983 but it was soon realized that there was a possibility of high intensity fires that would escape park boundaries. They built containment areas to reduce fire intensity and unwanted fire spread and started prescribed burns in areas with historical short burn cycles. Public concerns, in addition to an attempt to get aspens to a height greater than 2m, forced a reevaluation of the program. This resulted in researchers working with Stoney-Nakoda Elders to document established pre-park landscape use patterns. Similar to PANP, public and Indigenous support for restoring bison habitat may be the link for eco-cultural burning (White et al., 2011).

Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is on Vancouver Island, BC. Researchers have focused on Indigenous Traditional Knowledge of resources like camas, and specifically how fire can enhance and sustain these populations. Camas need fire to thrive and the re-introduction will allow for these populations to flourish along with the ecosystems that they interact with. These fire restoration programs remain small and often work in partnership with First Nations, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Canadian universities.

Through the use of these four contemporary Canadian examples within the Parks system, the use and reintroduction of fire is both beneficial for the species at risk, the broader eco-systems including animal populations (shown in PANP & BNP), and forest health. In addition to these, the relationship between the Indigenous People and the parks system, which has a long history of displacing Indigenous communities and peoples, is being reconciled through collaboration and consultation. The reintroduction of prescribed fires in these areas allows Indigenous communities, who are a part of the project, a chance to reconnect with traditional knowledge surrounding fire that they have been disconnected from for so long.

Case Study 1: Lytton First Nation

Lytton is a town in British Columbia that receives low levels of precipitation (430 mm) due to the rain-shadow effect caused by the Coast Mountain Range nearby, making it highly susceptible to wildfires in the summer months (Lewis, 2018). The susceptibility of this naturally dry environment has been amplified by the practice of fire suppression. Cultural burnings were used on this landscape for 7,000 years prior to European contact, but anthropogenic fire was practically removed from Indigenous communities in British Columbia within 2 centuries after colonization (Lewis, 2018). European settlement in British Columbia skyrocketed after gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon in 1858, and there was pressure put on the provincial government to curb these fires, leading to prescribed burning practices being strongly discouraged by the 1900’s (Lewis, 2018). The town of Lytton is on the traditional territory of the Nlaka’pamux People, who used fire to shape the land and increase the abundance of desired plants and animals before European contact. They commonly used fire to improve patches of desirable plants, such as wild celery, pine mushroom, oval-leaf blueberry, red huckleberry, garden asparagus, Indian potato, grayleaf red raspberry, and more (Lewis, 2018).

Due to fire suppression, the landscape of Lytton has changed drastically. Former bunchgrass grasslands at lower elevations have been replaced by encroaching ponderosa pine with dense understories (Lewis, 2018). Due to lack of natural disturbances, these stands continue to become denser, and are susceptible to the spread of pathogens or insects, as well as more intense fires due to fuel build up (Lewis, 2018).

After decades of a strict fire suppression regime, Lytton First Nation (LFN) are now allowed to practice traditional burns. This reintroduction could improve forest health in ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir stands by increasing age heterogeneity and higher resistance to pathogens and insects. This could also enhance habitat for native species such as moose and bighorn sheep, while also being a tool to control invasive and undesirable species (Lewis, 2018). However, reintroducing fire to the landscape of Lytton will not be a simple shift.

Lewis et al. (2018) interviewed members of LFN about the process and current state of fire reintroduction. Participants stated that burnings usually occur in open areas, rarely in forest stands of ponderosa pine, and most indicated that they only burn on their own property and did not burn common areas. It was also stated that there has been a major shift away from burning large areas, resulting in present day fires mainly being smaller spot/debris burnings.

As the landscape of Lytton has changed drastically due to fire suppression, this study recommends using fire, not as a single use and isolated solution, but to introduce small to medium scale burns that are led by the community over many years to slowly bring back elements of the historic fire regime (Lewis, 2018).

Case Study 2: Pikangikum First Nation

Through a comparison of Indigenous and western views on fire, it is obvious there is a difference in the understanding of fire as a proactive tool for forest management. Through the introduction of a contemporary example, Pikangikum Nation, we can define forest fires through the view of community members as they believe “forest fires are beings which possess agency and who intentionally create order in landscapes” (Miller, 2010b). An “18-month collaborative research study with the elders from Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario was conducted” (Miller, 2010a), revealing their opinion of forest management, and the main themes that were taken away highlighted the importance of the inclusion of fire in forest management. This was summarized through their proposals for how their 1.3 million hectares of traditional boreal forest territory should be managed, with the intention of moving away from Western knowledge as the main source of knowledge. This Indigenous expression of fire characterizes it as a living, sentient being with its own autonomy rather than a dangerous element that causes harm and needs to be controlled, which is the common Western view.

Viewing fire as a living being also differs from one of the westernized views of cultural landscapes, which was introduced by American cultural geographer Carl O. Sauer (Miller, 2010b). Sauer defined cultural landscapes as areas that are created from a natural landscape by a cultural group of people, where “[c]ulture is the agent, the area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result” (Leighly, 1963 as cited in Miller, 2010b). In this definition, Sauer views humans as the only beings with agency or the ability to manipulate and purposefully change a landscape. Members from the Pikangikum First Nation did not agree with this, explaining that many different actors who express their own agency contribute to landscapes that expand further than the patch and corridor model proposed by Sauer, one of those actors being fire (Miller, 2010b).

Furthermore, many Indigenous groups consider fire to be a gift from the creator and which has the dual ability to be a source of life, as well as a cause of destruction (Miller, 2010b). The relationship of fire with Indigenous nations can be described as ecologically important in Pikangikum territory. Fire is also the keystone disturbance factor in the boreal forest, and many of the dominant species of the Pikangikum territory, such as black spruce and trembling aspen, are fire-dependent, requiring high temperatures to release seeds and sustain the health of the forest stand (Miller, 2010b).

Moving Forward with Prescribed Fire

Prescribed forest fires should be utilized as a proactive response to mitigating issues of climate change and be upheld as a valid means of fire management and response.  To “integrate knowledge and worldviews between TK (traditional knowledge) and WK (western knowledge)” (Lake et al., 2017) for the use of applying prescribed fires in areas that need human assistance for the health of the ecosystem would be beneficial and is already being done, exemplified through the previous case studies. Through this approach, there is the possibility to protect the forests “as we are in a time where the number of forest fires is increasing as well as the amount of land and the burning season” (Lake et al., 2017). This demonstrates an immediate need for transformative forest management techniques as the fires are worsening, and knowing that prescribed fires can mitigate these losses of habitat and ecosystems but still not applying them, would be unequivocally wrong. This approach to forest management through the use of traditional Indigenous knowledge requires there to be “an established and ongoing relationship, as well as trust and respect” (Lake et al., 2017) meaning that there needs to be healthy and committed relationships between Indigenous nations, communities, knowledge keepers, and non-Indigenous organizations who have the means to execute the prescribed fires. This is new terrain and will require a lot of work from the federal and provincial governments, along with their parks systems so that they can remedy the harm they have done by outlawing cultural burning and dispossessing Indigenous Peoples from their land.

Moving forward, land management and forest fire management requires the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge as it will help combat issues within forest management. Western knowledge has been unable to respond to climate change effectively, as we are now in the Anthropocene due to the suppression of knowledge systems that may help lessen human impact and save critical ecosystems. “Indigenous forest management practices such as burning were outlawed and replaced with a centralized system that aimed to suppress all forest fires in Canada. Clearly, this was not effective as there has been a return to using Indigenous knowledge in mitigating these issues” (Christianson, 2014). This quote demonstrates how, contemporarily, there is a push for revitalizing Indigenous forest management practices as it is being realized how beneficial they are to the land and animals (including humans). The integration of both Indigenous Knowledge and Western Knowledge for forest management relationships, should include the value of transparency and “the goals of collaboration must be clear to all parties involved, including what are member roles and responsibilities, who is contributing what, who retains the final decision authority for the course of action” (Donoghue et al. 2010, Butler et al. 2015 as cited in Lake et al., 2017). This transparency is important to integrate in regard to the collaboration of Indigenous communities and governmental agencies for forest/resource management. This collaboration is integral in order to communicate knowledge systems and beliefs so that prescribed fires can be implemented to the full extent for the benefit of the land.


The destruction of forest fires is widely known and has only been worsening recently with some of the worst burning years in history. There has been an accumulation of material that can be used as fuel in a wildfire, such as dead trees or leaves, that have built up for years due to a lack of precautionary controlled burns, and the abundance of these fuel sources for fires causes them to get out of control. This, in addition to unusual dry seasons, is why we are seeing such catastrophic forest fires . A prescribed burn could have eradicated the build up of these materials. Through the wildfires seen across the Pacific Northwest in recent years, we know that “[t]he restoration of Indigenous-style prescribed burning can create positive impacts on biodiversity and sustain the landscapes as they are now, knowing that the way they are being managed now is incomplete without fire and unsustainable” (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). Through the examples of Lytton, Pikangikum and the Canada Parks, forests and ecosystems thrive when prescribed burns are reintroduced as many species need fire, such as camas. As the threat of irreversible climate change is impending, “the intent of contemporary forest management is no longer to support the subsistence economy of human beings but to enhance ecosystem health, productivity, and biodiversity” (Kimmerer & Lake, 2001). This echoes the sentiments that Indigenous Peoples have been putting into practice since time immemorial, that the human individual cannot take precedence over the lands, the beings, and their health as if each of these things are interdependent on one another. To take care of the land is to take care of one another and future generations to ensure the environment they live in is hospitable for human, plant and animal life. To make these changes towards sustainable ecosystem management practices in the wake of mass forest fires, we will first need to recognize the impact humans have on the landscape and in forest fires, and to move towards re-incorporation and integration of Indigenous communities and their knowledge around prescribed fires (White et al., 2011).


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Theme: Prescribed Fires
Country: Canada
Province/Prefecture: British Columbia
City: Vancouver

This conservation resource was created by Sterling McGregor, Marin Phillips-Hing, and Lauren Solmes.
It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0.