© Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

Looking to Indigenous communities for their knowledge

25 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

As the climate warms, wildfires across the Arctic are surging. For example, extreme heat this summer in Russia led to more than 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of land being scorched in Siberia. The fires were so big that smoke reached Alaska.

The Gwich’in Council International (GCI) has been working with the Arctic Council to come up with ways in which Arctic nations can cooperate on their wildfire responses. One project run by the Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group is looking at mapping wildland fires and sourcing best practices—including Indigenous knowledge—to better understand wildland fire ecology. A second project run by its Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response (EPPR) working group is evaluating bilateral agreements between different states to look at cooperation and collaboration and form a new circumpolar agreement on wildfire response.

EDWARD ALEXANDER is Gwich’yaa Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, Alaska. He is GCI’s co-chair and head of its delegation to the Arctic Council’s CAFF and EPPR working groups. He spoke to The Circle about the effect wildfires are having on Indigenous communities, and why it’s important that the communities play a leadership role in these projects.

How do these wildfires affect the communities that live near them?
One of the things we’ve seen is more evacuations. We’ve also seen wildfires in areas where they haven’t traditionally occurred. For example, this year Iceland had its first experiences with wildland fires. Sweden had some significant wildland fires a few years ago when a heat dome was sitting above the country— but it hadn’t had experience with wildland fire before. People are experiencing impacts like loss of economic activity and health effects from the smoke. Here in Alaska, hunting areas and trap
lines get burned, and those are productive areas that people rely on for food sources. So, it becomes a food security issue for people in the North.

Why do you think it’s important that Indigenous People and organizations like yours take the lead in projects like these?
We’re from this area, so we know what the history of wildfire has been here. We also know how we’ve managed the situation successfully in the past. I think it’s important to have everyone involved for the health and safety of communities across the circumpolar North. A lot of those communities are Indigenous, so if we’re going to have the best knowledge and local participants at the table, Indigenous People have to be included.

It also means having scientists work together with Indigenous communities to better understand some of the practices we engage in and how they can be useful—not only in wildfire mitigation, but in managing global climate change.

Can you give an example of how Indigenous communities have managed fires in the past?
The examples I always give are the Gwich’in practices around fire. One involves burning meadows in the springtime. These are cultural burns, basically prescribed burning that Indigenous People here have engaged in for a long time. There are some key features that differ from the prescribed burning done by the Canadian Fire Service or the US Forest Service. For example, we only do our prescribed burns during a very particular time of year, when there’s still snow on the ground and in the woods and the ground is still frozen. This protects the plants’ root systems and makes wildland fires more containable so they don’t spread through large grasslands and the taiga forest. Wildland fires weren’t historically as large there because these meadows and lakes would basically serve as containment areas where the fire couldn’t go through.

These cultural burns also improve the nutritional value of plants. Because these areas are burned in the springtime, the plants have higher nutritional value for the different species that depend on them, such as muskrats, waterfowl and other migratory birds. I’ve seen estimates that this practice increases nutritional value by 50 per cent for these animals. Maybe it’s just burning off non-productive grass so that the land produces a wider variety of plant species that host more diverse animals and insects, thereby increasing the carrying capacity of the land and, in turn, food security for Native people.

But these practices don’t need to be historical. Indigenous knowledge doesn’t need to be historical. If we can find and understand more examples of Indigenous knowledge about wildfire, I’m absolutely certain it will be useful to all of us in a circumpolar and global context as the fires become not only an effect of climate change, but a global driver of it.

What are your long-term hopes for these wildfire projects?
Well, for the EPPR project, we hope it results in a binding agreement between all the states so they can work together on wildland fire operationally and establish a mechanism to gather and share their best knowledge. For the CAFF project, we hope it brings forward wildland fire ecology in the North so communities are better informed about wildland fire. We feel that if we can get operational folks, Indigenous communities and scientists to come forward and work together, we’re going to get to a much better place as far as dealing with the impacts of wildfire in the North.

It’s a big issue, and hopefully this is just the start, because we all have our part to play. I hope folks will get involved so they can understand how to make their communities more resilient against wildfire and so we can address global climate change together.