Shifting to a Proactive Model of Wildfire Management

Following the devastating 2021 fire season, the Province announced that Budget 2022 would more than double the funding available to protect British Columbians from wildfires by increasing funding for several wildfire prevention programs and initiatives , including increasing prevention and mitigation activities like cultural burning and prescribed fire.   

To support the expanded use of cultural burning and prescribed fire, the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS) of B.C. will receive ongoing funding to integrate traditional practices and cultural uses of fire into wildfire prevention efforts, mitigating the risk of devastating wildfires.

The increased budget will also enable BC Wildfire Service to shift from a reactive model of service into a year-round proactive model focused on all four pillars of wildfire management: prevention and mitigation; preparedness; response; and recovery.

To learn more about this new approach to wildfire management, we spoke with Dave Pascal, the new Cultural and Prescribed Fire Specialist with the First Nations’ Emergency Service Society (FNESS), and Tony Pesklevits, Deputy Director with the BC Wildfire Service. 

“First Nations’ Emergency Services Society is looking forward to this opportunity to work with program partners and to continue to serve First Nation communities in BC by helping to increase community resiliency and reduce wildfire risk”, said Pascal. 

Dave Pascal, Cultural and Prescribed Fire Specialist, First Nations’ Emergency Service Society (FNESS)

Pascal previously worked with BC Wildfire Service for 23 years in various capacities, including as a subject matter expert on procurement, a First Nations Engagement Advisor and, most recently, a Provincial Operations Research Technician. He has now moved into a specialized role with FNESS where he gets to use his experience, training and culture to help reinvigorate fire on the landscape and help First Nation communities connect back with traditional cultural burning. 

Another perk of Pascal’s new role is working with other passionate, like-minded program partners, such as Tony Pesklevits, who has been with with BC Wildfire Service for three years, most recently as the new Deputy Director responsible for overseeing the integration and expansion of the Cultural Burning and Prescribed Fire program. 

“We have the same vision, mandate, and passion, and we’re very aligned on our approach to work collaboratively and share the responsibility of reintroducing cultural burning and prescribed fire in the province,” said Pascal. 

Pesklevits echoes that sentiment saying “there’s a real opportunity for British Columbia to change its relationship with fire and embrace it as a necessary tool for wildfire risk reduction, ecosystem health, and climate resilience. The only way we can be successful is by working together.” 

Tony Pesklevits, Deputy Director, Cultural and Prescribed Fire Program, BC Wildfire Service 

Until recently, BC was focused on aggressive and highly effective wildfire suppression that has resulted in a significant build-up of forest fuels, greater tree encroachment on grasslands, and ‘in-filling’ of once open, dry forests. Aggressive fire suppression has both increased the risk of devastating wildfires and negatively impacted biodiversity and forest health. BC Wildfire Service is now shifting to a more holistic approach to wildfire management, incorporating proactive preventative measures, not just suppression. 

“I wish more people understood how natural fire is, just like air and water,” said Pascal. Instead, people equate fire with devastation because we removed it from the landscape and told them it was bad.”

By stopping naturally occurring fires, and limiting the time-honoured Indigenous practice known as cultural burning, historical provincial policy contributed to a significant buildup of forest fuels. Our forests and other landscapes have become overgrown, exposing our ecosystems and communities to even greater wildfire risk. Pascal and Pesklevits are on a mission to respond to that risk by putting more  good fire on the landscape. 

As Pesklevits explained, “fire is a necessary part of ecosystems. For example, there are some species of plants that only produce seeds when a fire occurs. In some ecosystems, ground debris needs to burn every few years to avoid the buildup that becomes dangerous fuel for large wildfires. If we don’t create a fire in a controlled environment, the risk is that it will happen regardless, but in conditions that may make it much harder to manage.”

A BC Wildfire Service officer uses a drip-torch to ignite a prescribed fire 

Objectives for these types of burns may include public safety and wildfire risk reduction, preserving Indigenous cultural values, improving wildlife habitat, revitalizing vegetation, or ecosystem restoration. When applied correctly, cultural burning or prescribed fire can help achieve these goals and more, resulting in healthier, more resilient forests, balanced food chains and species.  

“Every burn has a different set of objectives, geography, and partners,” said Pesklevits. “These factors all contribute to the complexity of the burn plan. As a result, the timeline of carrying out a burn can vary. Some burns take only a few weeks to plan, while others could take more than a year.”

Fire is a sacred and powerful element that is used on the landscape and in ceremony, also known as cultural burning. It holds different meanings for different Indigenous communities, but is often defined as the controlled application of fire on the landscape to achieve specific cultural objectives.These controlled, low-intensity fires are typically implemented by Indigenous fire keepers or other Indigenous experts to achieve specific cultural objectives. This time-honoured tradition has been used for decades through local Indigenous knowledge systems passed down from generation to generation. 

Tackling wildfire risk reduction and land management using fire as a tool requires collaboration with multiple partners, including government, industry, Indigenous communities, landowners, and other organizations. 

Often, there are multiple partners involved in a project and the role of each can vary based on the location, size, and goals. Partners on a project may be responsible for identifying areas where a prescribed fire or other wildfire reduction tool could meet a specific objective, initiating or contributing to a burn plan or prescription, supporting implementation on burn day, or helping to monitor projects post-burn. 

Pesklevits stressed the importance of partnering with First Nations communities as they hold valuable knowledge and unique relationships with the land. Indigenous communities have been leading wildland fire mitigation and prevention in many ways since time immemorial. “In collaboration with First Nations communities and other partners, positive change is already happening.”

First Nations communities can also help answer what Pesklevits refers to as one of the most important initial questions when considering a prescribed fire: Is fire the right tool to achieve these goals? 

Safety considerations are a top priority when planning a burn. This includes the safety of the crew involved and how plants, animals, and the surrounding community will be affected by smoke and fire. All of these factors are taken into consideration when considering if prescribed fire is appropriate. 

When asked what’s next for the Cultural Burning and Prescribed Fire program, Pesklevits said “The government has made commitments to advance this work and we take those commitments seriously. We’ve been doing prescribed fire for years, but it’s going to take expansion and greater collaboration with First Nations, as well as other partners, to be more effective and achieve the outcomes that people want to see.”

“Success won’t happen overnight,” said Pascal. “Wildfire management is not one person’s job – we all have to do our part to protect our province.“

About the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS) 

The First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of British Columbia (FNESS) is incorporated under the Society Act of British Columbia. Our mission is to assist First Nations in developing and sustaining safer and healthier communities by providing the programs and services described in this website. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

FNESS evolved from the Society of Native Indian Fire Fighters of BC (SNIFF), which was established in 1986. SNIFF’s initial objectives were to help reduce the number of fire-related deaths on First Nation reserves, but changed its emphasis to incorporate a greater spectrum of emergency services. In 1994, SNIFF changed its name to First Nations’ Emergency Services

Society of BC to reflect its growing diversity of services provided.

Today our organization continues to gain recognition and trust within First Nations communities and within the Department of Indigenous Services Canada (DISC) and other organizations. This is reflected in both the growing demand of service requests from First Nations communities and in the devolvement of more government-sponsored programs to FITNESS.

The First Nations’ Emergency Services Society believes in treating our membership, staff, clients,consultants and external organizations with integrity, respect, fairness and honesty. Through leadership and wisdom, FNESS believes in recognizing the cultural diversity of all those involved.Working as a team to deliver programs, we are committed to being an open, credible, sincere and trustworthy organization.

About BC Wildfire Service

The BC Wildfire Service is British Columbia’s provincial wildfire management agency. Founded in the early 1900’s, it has evolved into a year-round organization working closely with partners to lead and contribute to wildfire risk reduction, preparedness, response and recovery. The BC Wildfire Service administers a range of programs focused on reducing wildfire risk to communities, including the Community Resiliency Initiative, and responds to an average of 1,600 wildfires each year. It also plays a support role in responding to other emergencies, such as floods and landslides.

About the Cultural Burning & Prescribed Fire program

The Cultural and Prescribed Fire program focuses on reducing wildfire risk to communities, sustaining biodiversity, maintaining productive and adaptive ecosystems, and preserving the cultural practices of Indigenous peoples through the use of cultural and prescribed fire on the land base.

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