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Fire on the landscape: ʔaq̓am prescribed burn puts traditional knowledge into practice

Ahead of a large-scale prescribed burn on traditional Ktunaxa territory, ʔaq̓am Community members, BC Wildfire Service crews, contractors and partners gathered at the site to start the day off in a good way.
The ʔaq̓am Community and partner agencies completed a 1,200 prescribed burn at the end of April, utilizing traditional Ktunaxa knowledge for land management. Photo courtesy Colleen Ross.

Ahead of a large-scale prescribed burn on traditional Ktunaxa territory, ʔaq̓am Community members, BC Wildfire Service crews, contractors and partners gathered at the site to start the day off in a good way.

ʔaq̓am Community elder Marty Williams spoke about the Ktunaxa traditional practices relating to the use of fire on the landscape, while Max Andrew, who sits on the ʔaq̓am Community Lands Committee, made the first ignition, putting into motion a project five years in the making.

“It was awesome, and amazing to see all those people collaborating and working together,” said Michelle Shortridge, Director of Operations and Community Services with ʔaq̓am. “And it’s done differently; as an Indigenous community, really taking that ownership and stewardship over our land and working towards implementing the practices that is right for our community and then obviously reaching out to our neighbours and working together on that.”

The two-day prescribed burn, which began on Friday, April 28, covered up to 1,200 hectares immediately north of the St. Mary River, and east of the Canadian Rockies International Airport on the ʔaq̓am Community Lands.

Colleen Ross, a wildland fire ecologist acted as the ‘Burn Boss’ while Julie Couse, Director of Lands and Natural Resources for ʔaq̓am, headed up the five-year project planning process.

The burn had a two-fold purpose; mitigating wildfire risks by reducing surface fuel loads but also, more importantly, burning away dead organic material as a way to restore the landscape for ecosystem regrowth.

But beyond those objectives, the project was significant for the use of intentional fire as a traditional Ktunaxa cultural practice for land management, which has been employed since time immemorial as a way to enhance berry production, clear travel routes, provide pasture for cattle and horses, and influence movement of elk herds.

“We recognized that it was important for the ecosystem and those low-intensity fires just regenerate the forest versus killing it,” Shortridge said.

However, in recent decades, a lack of fire activity on the landscape around ʔaq̓am has altered the historical fire-maintained cycle of ecosystem regrowth and regeneration, while increasing the potential risk of a catastrophic wildfire.

The last large prescribed burn in the ʔaq̓am Community occurred in 2018, as it takes time to prepare the landscape and to appropriately plan for factors such as species at risk and cultural values.

“Through the last few winters as well, there’s been work that’s had to take place on the site, so different logging and clean up efforts, in order to get prepared to do the burn,” Shortridge said.

As the winter preparations transitioned into the spring, there was a very specific four-week window due to a late winter that opened up in April, as ʔaq̓am Community experts waited for the right conditions to align at the end of the month before moving ahead with the operation.

The site, which hadn’t seen any large-scale fire activity in over 50 years, required a minimum temperature of 18 degrees C in order to dry out the forest fuels, among other factors, before the burn could go ahead.

Partners agencies in the project included the City of Cranbrook, City of Kimberley, the BC Wildfire Service, and numerous regional contractors.

The ʔaq̓am Community lands burn also coincided with a similar project led by the City of Cranbrook a few days earlier, as a 79-hectare burn was completed east and south of the airport. That project served as the continuation of a previous prescribed burn from last year, as well as a border to the ʔaq̓am Community project.

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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