Newsletter: Want to know more about wildfires? Ask an elder. 🔥

5 ways Indigenous traditional knowledge on wildfires helps us survive and thrive

No conversation about wildfires is complete without recognition of the knowledge of those who’ve been working with, rather than against, fire for thousands of years. That’s why this episode of the Fire Break is dedicated to traditional knowledge.

What do I mean by that? Modern science has brought all kinds of helpful information to light, like the North American standards for home fire protection, known as Fire Smart (developed with the help of the Deh Gah Got’ie Dene, which I wrote about here). But traditional knowledge is insight passed down from elders to younger generations. As wildfires are getting bigger, hotter and burning longer — land-based knowledge continues to be key to adaptation.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Traditional knowledge shows us how to use fire to keep forests happy. As I wrote about in another Fire Break, for thousands of years Indigenous Peoples have been intentionally lighting fires to remove unhealthy parts of the forest and keep bigger fires from getting out of control. In fact, some research suggests a “Little Ice Age” that began in the 1500s may have been triggered in part by forest regrowth since the sudden decline in Indigenous populations from diseases meant there were fewer controlled burns.


2. Traditional knowledge reveals how to use fire for food. Angie Thorne of Ashcroft First Nation in British Columbia says her community lights fires in March to encourage the growth of wild asparagus, which they later harvest. This kind of pre-season burning is known as woyboyuhmuhkh in her language, Nlaka’pamux, which translates to “make the land ready for new growth.” She explains the usage: We would wait for the rain to end and the winds to blow from the north away from community before we would woyboyuhmuhkh. In Northern Saskatchewan, Candyce Paul of English River First Nation says that blueberries grow best in places that have previously burned.


3. Traditional knowledge taught us how to travel with fire. Fire is so important for warmth and survival, people figured out how to carry it. “Tinder conk” is a kind of fungus that grows on trees in the northern boreal forests. Many cultures around the world discovered that an ember can be held in the fungus for easy transport, so a fire can be easily lit at the end of the day.


4. Traditional knowledge improves the way communities fight fires. As Candyce explains to me, elders teach that wildfires are best fought at night. Equipped with insights like this, it’s no wonder Indigenous communities across Canada successfully defend themselves from fires when necessary.


5. Traditional knowledge helps us understand the full impact of new technologies. Fire retardants made up of fertilizer are often used during the wildfire season to control forest fires (you’ve probably seen the pictures of airplanes spraying the red stuff). It’s considered safe to humans and animals, but even the brochures admit it can be toxic to aquatic life. Insights from people like Chief Stuart Alec show how fish like salmon may be suffering from the widespread use of retardants, adding a whole new level of stress and uncertainty to the lives of many touched by extreme wildfire.


Leslie Edmonds picks wild celery alongside his great granddaughter in Ashcroft First Nation territory during a class field trip last summer, before the wildfires.

Angie Thorne and her family are still recovering from the wildfires that struck Ashcroft First Nation last summer. But the community continues to heal with the help of culture and tradition. This picture is of Angie’s father, Leslie Edmonds, alongside his great granddaughter picking wild celery, or stwetta, during one of her class field trips last summer, before the wildfires broke out. 

Have your say.

I know there are countless other insights I didn’t mention here. What’s your favourite traditional wildfire insight? Drop me a note by email or on my environment channel, found here. Facebook and Twitter work, too.

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