Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Wildfire Management in the Province of Alberta, Canada: Then, Now and the Future
The Indigenous peoples of what is now Alberta, Canada have been using fire as a tool to shape the landscape and its resources since time immemorial. Prior to European contact different communities and cultures employed fire and forest fire management to service multiple needs ranging from cultural to economic. In the advent of European contact and settlement, European values and perspectives were prescribed upon the Albertan landscape, altering the use of traditional fire management. From Dominion [explain what this term means] onward, the rush to settle and harvest Alberta’s vast natural resources has pushed Indigenous communities to the margins of society and in turn dimmed the flame of Indigenous fire management. Through a series of several insufficiently informed treaty signings, Indigenous peoples across Alberta were stripped of title to their traditional territories. Traditional knowledge and techniques have been lost or altered as the Albertan Indigenous population were relocated under the reservation system and as fire on the land was no longer seen as a tool for benefit but a menace to progress. In more recent history, fire is beginning to be returned to the landscape and traditional knowledge is beginning to be recognized by ‘settler science’ and implemented into provincial fire management.
Alberta is a province prone to fire from North to South and East to West. In the far North, boreal swamps and peatlands packed with black spruce rely upon fires for their natural regeneration cycles and ecological self-regulation. In the south and east, wind swept prairie grasslands carry fast flashy fires over great lengths, fanned by dry winds off the Rockies to the west. In the west, the dry eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains combine the boreal forests and strong, dry, western winds to create fires on steep slopes that can rage for the better half of a year. Alberta is predisposed to quick, flashy fires in its grasslands and eastern slopes in the spring and fall as the natural cycles of freeze and thaw create dry dead grass powder kegs. In the peak of the summer heat when the sun seldom sets in the north, forests are dry and primed to burn and renew.
Since time immemorial the Indigenous peoples of Alberta have employed fire management to mold and harvest their landscapes. “The evidence is clear: the indigenes [sic] used fire to make their environment more habitable…They sought to replace fires of chance with fires of choice.”. Human created fires were used to herd buffalo and wildlife, renew berry growth in the slopes and develop land for easier passage and agriculture among hundreds of other uses. By modern standards the Indigenous peoples of Alberta were rather adept at wildfire management and using wildfire as a tool. however fires were still able to escape their control and in turn create adverse effects with their destruction.
In the advent of European contact, wildfire management in Alberta greatly changed for the first time since Indigenous peoples set out upon the land. In the beginning, trappers and explorers driven by fur trade and exploration set out west to find the edge of the ‘New World’. These early explorers were more observatory than participatory in their land management. Over the next hundred or so years, the value of Alberta’s fertile prairies and vast forests came to draw the attention of eastern settlers and officials. The exploitation of buffalo had also found its way to Alberta. As buffalo herders descended upon the last of the great herds that once roamed the prairies, local Indigenous peoples would set fires to herd the buffalo from extinction and to set a buffer between the herds and unbridled massacres.
As the buffalo began to disappear and sodhouse settlements and log cabins began to pop up across what is now Alberta, Dominion was not far behind. With the new control and claim to Alberta, came changes to the landscape. Europeans viewed fire as a menace on the landscape that threatened settlement and the resources it aimed to extract. Indigenous knowledge was increasingly viewed as inferior to European land management and science. In the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 wildfire was recognized as a threat to Canada and its colonial future. The Geographical Survey of Canada led by Robert Bell documented and dismissed Indigenous management of fire and its uses. Bell would even go as far as bribing and suggesting continued bribes to Indigenous peoples in Alberta to curtail their ancient burning practices. The first steps in the outlawing of Indigenous fire management in Alberta had been taken.
Traditional fire management knowledge continued to be marginalized over the course of the 19th century. The development of the Alberta Forest Service implemented fire rangers and small wildfire forces to detect and battle blazes throughout forest protection zones in Alberta. The Indigenous peoples of Alberta were subjected to cultural genocide via residential schools and the ‘60s Swoop. Not only was the traditional fire management knowledge of Indigenous peoples under threat, but their traditions and identity altogether were being systematically ripped from them and destroyed by the Canadian government and Christian missionaries. The horrors of the Canadian residential school system not only attempted to strip the Indigenous peoples of their language, culture and traditions, it left scars that are still visible and widely felt in the Indigenous community.
In addition, the damage caused by the residential schools, the physical marginalization and containment of Indigenous peoples on reservations and settlements further detached them from their traditional lands and land management techniques. Treaties 6,7 and 8 divided up the traditional territories of the Plains and Woodland Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot and other First Nations peoples throughout Alberta and the prairie provinces. Prior to these treaties the concept of land ownership did not exist amongst Indigenous peoples of Canada, the concept of owning that which belonged to all was completely foreign and nonsensical to those that signed these treaties. Indigenous peoples were relocated to settlements and reservations where they were entitled to live, however the land ultimately belonged to the federal government. The reservation lands were often not within the traditional territory of the peoples who occupied them, further more these small tracts of land did not see much controlled fire as agriculture was economically and institutionally pressed upon these communities.
Most of the lands that were obtained via treaty 6 would provide land for the expansion of Canada's rail network. With the rail network and its construction and functions came more accidental and human caused fires to the landscape. The Alberta Forest Service prioritized the protection of the settlements and infrastructure affected by these increased railroad fires. Wildfire was no longer a natural occurrence or land management tool, but a menace to be fought and stifled whenever possible.
Over the course of the 19th century Indigenous marginalization continued as did the increase in fire intensity and frequency. Albertan wildfire management efforts continued to grow just as the fires did. Helicopters, waterbombers and specialized Helitack wildfire crews were developed to battle and suppress the blazes. In 1983 Alberta implemented the Rappel wildfire crew in order to access the province's most remote fires in order to stop them before they grew. The wildfire management mandate was to contain each fire and stop its spread before 10am or peak burning period the next day. This aggressive fire management plan saw a widespread removal of fire from the landscape across the province. Prescribed burns and fuel load management (i.e. FireSmart and forest thinning programs) were employed to manage problem areas close to urban interface.
Treaty 6 relinquished title of Indigenous lands in south central Alberta and Saskatchewan to the Canadian Government. Treaty 6 has been widely disputed on the grounds of the understanding of the terms by the signatories of the treaty. “One of the main questions is whether the signatories truly understood the concept of land cession. This is unlikely, especially considering…because this concept would have been completely foreign to the Plains Indigenous peoples, who had a different understanding of land ownership than the commissioners”
Treaty 7 established reservations in exchange for the surrendering of land for several Plains First Nations. Treaty 7 cemented the land claims for southern Alberta from Calgary to the United States border. Similar to Treaty 6 the language and understanding of the treaty at the time of signing is viewed a deliberate attempt at misleading signees. The treaty’s terms established reservations for the Siksika; Tsuut’ina; Piikani; and Stoney-Nakoda nations.
Treaty 8 stripped Indigenous peoples of Northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia of their land title. The treaty was originally developed by the Canadian government in order to extract valuable minerals and oil. As with the Treaties that preceded Treaty 8, the treaty was signed with insufficiently informed consent. Treaty 8 was also heavily influential on the land claims of the relatively large Metis populations of Northern Alberta. Within the negotiations of Treaty 8 a “Half-Breed Commission” was formed with the goal of “extinguishing Métis title”.
The Alberta Forest Protection Zone is divided up into 10 different districts:
· Rocky Mountain House
· Lac La Biche
· Fort MacMurray
· Grande Prairie
· Peace River
· High Level
· Slave Lake
These fire districts are each administratively centered around offices in the towns for which they are named. Fire rangers and forest technicians monitor fuel loads and forest health within the areas to develop fire management plans and preparedness. The offices are tasked with developing community resiliency and wildfire mitigation initiatives within their fire districts.
Modern decisions surrounding wildfire management and prescribed burning are subject to scientific scrutiny and crippled by public opinion regarding wildfires. The Slave Lake (2011) and Fort MacMurray (2016) wildfire catastrophes still burn hotly in the minds of the Albertan public. As the urbanization of Alberta’s forests have increased so has the threat of fire upon cities and towns. Areas of forest that have now become decadent and ripe for burning have been allowed to pile up around urban settlements due to public pressure to maintain intact forest. The public perception in Alberta is very much that all fire is bad fire and something to be feared. Alberta is a place devoid of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and for the most part tornadoes so the only real destructive natural threat is that of fire. Ironically, Alberta’s fire management strategy and public aversion to fire has created conditions for fires on greater scales and intensities than the province is used to seeing. In the summer of 2019, fires in High Level and Slave Lake districts tripled the number of hectares burnt for the entire country the year prior. 
- Indigenous communities within Alberta
- First Nations Reservations and Communities
- Metis Settlements and Communities
- Rural fire management offices and emergency response centers
- Wildfire Crews
- Rural Dwelling Albertans
- Natural resource extracting entities (Oil & Gas, Logging, Mining, etc.) - concerned with access to the land and its resources as well as protecting their extraction processes from wildfires.
- International Wildfire Crews imported to aide in extreme fire seasons.
- FireSmart Canada - concerned with developing community resiliency programs for rural communities.
- Wildfire Ecologists - concerned with studying the effects and causes of wildifres on the landscape.
Restoration of Fire to the Landscape
New pathways are being explored to try and give foresters in Alberta an edge on the increased fire activity and longer fire seasons. With the goal of optimizing fire management some communities are turning to old knowledge for modern problems. Metis settlements and First Nations reservations throughout the province are turning to the federally funded FireSmart initiatives to thin the forests around their communities and protect against wildfire threats. Some communities are going as far as to push for more control and implementation of prescribed burnings on their lands. Fire scientists and social scientists in British Columbia are beginning to work with First Nations communities to return traditional fire knowledge to the landscape. The Xwisten First Nation in partnership with The First Nations Emergency Services Society in British Columbia has recently initiated the “Indigenous cultural burning storytelling and practices” project. This project seeks to use traditional fire management in order to “Integrate Indigenous cultural values into wildfire management and climate change adaptation planning project”.This project is currently being reviewed by Metis settlements and First Nations reservations and communities across Alberta to promote community resiliency and restore agency over the landscape to Indigenous peoples.
Community forestry resiliency projects within Indigenous communities and settlements do more than just prepare the community for wildfires. FireSmart and wildfire management programs provide Indigenous communities with gainful employment and skill development. Most importantly restoring fire to the land and promoting community resiliency enables Indigenous communities to reclaim their traditional knowledge and connection to their lands.
Indigenous communities in Alberta are often located in areas of high wildfire risk. These communities are often marginalized; underserved and underemployed. Implementing and studying traditional fire management on the landscape provides an opportunity for reconciliation and empowerment with Indigenous communities. FireSmart intitiatives and wildfire management programs provide opportunity for gainful employment and skill development in Indigenous communities. First Nation Reservations and Metis Settlements should continue to work with federal and provincial levels of fire management to promote community resiliency and health.
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- Filice, M. (2016, October 11). Treaty 6. Retrieved from The Canadian Encyclopedia: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-6
- Tesar, A. (2016, August 19). Treaty 7. Retrieved from The Canadian Encyclopedia: https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-7
- Tesar, A. (2016, August 30). Treaty 8. Retrieved from The Canadian Encyclopedia: https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-8
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