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How First Nations’ Techniques Could Help BC Deal with Harsher Forest Fires

However, with a ban on controlled burns and only a volunteer fire department, dealing with BC's increasingly brutal fire season is tougher than ever for the Lil'wat Nation.

by Aaron Mate
Oct 2 2015, 7:40pm

Aaron Maté, left, with Jordon Gabriel. Image via "BC Is Burning"

In a year set to be the world's hottest on record, summer 2015 brought North America one of its worst wildfire seasons ever. Scorching temperatures and severe droughts, coupled with El Nino, created the perfect conditions for turning the woodlands into tinderboxes. Blazes across Western Canada and the US scorched millions of hectares and forced thousands of people from their homes. Experts tied the fires to human-driven climate change and warned the worst is yet to come.

British Columbia, home to North America's wettest climate (the rainforest on Vancouver Island), was one of the hardest-hit areas. An unusually mild winter gave way to BC's earliest fire season in recent memory. Record-breaking temperatures in the ensuing months kept the flames at peak levels, consuming over 304,000 hectares and covering half the province in smoke.

BC Is Burning

For our new documentary, "BC is Burning," VICE hit the Wet Coast to investigate the wildfires' causes and impacts. We heard from firefighters battling some of the toughest blazes they've ever faced, scientists investigating the role of climate change, nature experts tracking how the fires affect the province's rich ecology, and residents trying to protect their homes.

While many echoed BC Premier Christy Clark's view that climate change fuels the wildfires, critics said the government hasn't done enough to prevent their spread. This includes fire suppression techniques like prescribed or controlled burns, which remove the dead trees that would otherwise act as fuel, and helps the forest regenerate with the new plant life that grows in their place. It's a significant issue for First Nations communities, who traditionally used controlled burns to help manage their wooded areas, but today live under provincial bans.

At a recently burnt fire zone where new greenery was already starting to peek out of the charred ground, VICE spoke with Jordon Gabriel, a forester with the Lil'wat Nation in the Lillooet River Valley. In this edited excerpt, Gabriel talks about living near the wildfires in a changing climate and concerns that government policies are curbing his community's ability to protect itself.

VICE: This area is pretty burnt out. What happened here?
Jordon Gabriel: The fire started in April, earlier than usual. Within two hours, because there was so much more heat this year and with the temperatures so high, the wind picked it up and it got to be about one hectare in size. The good thing is they had an excavator to help contain it. If they didn't catch it, then it would've went into the big timber right up the mountain because it was so dry this year. Lots of fires were going.

How does it compare to other years in terms of severity?
It's pretty up there. Between one to ten, it'd probably get up into the ten range. This year is the first time I noticed lots of the communities under water restrictions. I mean, with all the water that we have around here, that everything is water restricted, shows it was a really hot, dry year.

Yeah, that's what strikes me—we're in a coastal region, but yet it's on fire.
We usually get as much rain as [Vancouver]. And if you go up to the range on the top of the hills here, we are inside the Interior and that's where they do expect all the dry weather, right? But we had it just as dry here as they did in the Interior.

Is this climate change, or just something that might happen every once in a while?
I think we can expect something like this to happen more often. I'm starting to see different tree species growing in different areas that are usually in warmer weather. I bring elders out to gather herbs for medicine and everything. Some of the areas where we went to pick, we were three weeks late because it was such a dry, hot year. It seemed like everything was speeded up.

Does that worry you?
I think it should worry everybody that we're getting into longer, dryer seasons. And with fire I think it would really do well if we introduced it back into the ecosystem. That way we wouldn't have all these great big fires again. Our people used to use fire so that they could burn off areas to collect plants and food. They'd burn off an area and then leave it. Then they'd let that grow back and they'd move to another area and do the same. But now, ever since [the provincial government] wouldn't allow our communities to do that, we get [natural] fuel loading up in all the forests. So it's just going make for bigger and bigger fires when they start up.

Why doesn't the province let you carry out controlled burns?
We've been asking them and we never did hear back. You would be accomplishing a lot with controlled burns in the area. You'd be getting food, you'd be getting herbs, and you'd be teaching people how to fight the fires, to keep them contained.

Is there not sufficient understanding in the political realm about the use of fires, how they can actually be helpful?
That's a tough one to comment on. I was just talking to one of the elders. When they tried a controlled burn in our community, they all ended up going to jail because [the authorities] thought they were burning the forest down. But what they were doing was trying to do a burn so that they could have a place to go to pick berries and mushrooms. The [government] didn't understand. And I think everybody needs to just start working together to educate each other.

How long has the government been stopping Lil'Wat from doing its controlled burns?
I think it comes from pretty well around the 1930s to 40s, so that's quite a long time. I mean, we've got 75-year-olds, they've only seen it when they were kids.

And what do community members say about the fact that it's not allowed anymore?
Some of them get worried because lots of our communities are right close to the forest right now. We got one of our areas where the forest is right up against the outer rim of our houses.

Having these fires come so close and smoke out the area, how did people react?
People get worried about losing their homes, because you could not see when all the fires were going here. You could get up in the morning, stumble out the door, and look right up above your home and there's a fire burning there and people are getting worried: what can we do? Where can we go? So that's one of the worries and reasons why we want to do some management.

Is there a fire department in Lillooet?
There is a fire department—well, let's say that there was a fire department, but due to a lack of funding most of the guys are just volunteer.

Is that dangerous, having to rely on volunteers?
Yes it is. Every community throughout the world should be able to have training for protecting your own communities for fighting fires.

What if there are bigger fires, are you ready?
That's the tough thing, right? I don't know if we would be ready. We've got just enough to fight a wildfire out in the bush and to help protect homes, but nothing to respond to the [bigger] type of fire.

So the wildfires are getting bigger and starting earlier, but you still have the same resources as before.
Yeah, and I mean, every community should at least have a crew to stay home and look after the community. For us to have to rely on the village of Pemberton, when we got something like 1,700 people living here? We should be able to do it ourselves, and also be able to help them. If there's something [threatening] both communities, we should be able to help each other.

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Aaron Maté
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