As experts warn that the planet is entering a “runaway fire age,” First Nations in and around Lytton, British Columbia, are expressing anger as response crews prioritize fire-damaged rail infrastructure over people.
Members of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council (NNTC) “are prepared to block trains unless the provincial government and railway companies better respond to their concerns about recovery plans for their communities and continued rail traffic in the region,” council chair Matt Pasco told the Globe and Mail. He said NNTC communities along the Fraser and Thompson river basins have been left to sift through the ashes themselves and excluded from provincial discussions about recovery. Meanwhile, rail infrastructure in the region is already aswarm with repair workers, with no recognition of First Nations’ jurisdiction.
“You can build armies of people to build up infrastructure and simply forget about the people affected,” Pasco said. “That disrespect gets met with: ‘Nobody should be running through our territory’.”
Anger has been building among First Nations in the Lytton region over “a slow, chaotic response in the early hours of the fire, followed by a poorly coordinated effort to ensure evacuees were accounted for,” the Globe writes. NNTC member communities are also distressed by the provincial government’s failure “to recognize the jurisdiction of First Nations and the knowledge they can bring to land management and stewardship.”
In fact, say wildfire experts, that lack of acknowledgment for Indigenous stewardship is part of the reason why the climate may be entering a “runaway” fire age, writes The Tyee.
Coined by environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne, the term describes a terrifying scenario where wildfires are so intense they generate tornadoes and so-called “pyroCBs” out of clear blue skies. In an August 2020 interview with Bloomberg during the raging California fires of 2020, Pyne spoke of how the current model of assuming fire to be intrinsically bad and in need of constant suppression is “fundamentally wrong, and…ignorant of science and the knowledge of Indigenous communities.”
“Right now we have too much of the wrong kind of fire, too little of the right kind of fire, and way too much fossil fuel combustion overall,” he said. The “right” kind, which can actually work to limit forest-obliterating infernos, are periodic fires that burn moderately in relatively young and resilient, mixed forests.
Modern methods of machinery-reliant fire suppression—a.k.a. “Hit it hard. Hit it fast. And keep it small”—have little traction in the face of massive fires so fierce that they become “meteorological events,” explains The Tyee.
The terrifying effects of such events were seen at the 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, when “super-heated updrafts from the fire sucked smoke, ash, burning materials, and water vapour high into the sky, where it began to cool and form ‘fire clouds’ that look and act like those associated with a classic thunderstorm,” but far too hot to produce any precipitation. The Tyee recalls how one such lighting-filled pyroCB proceeded to move “across the surrounding landscape, triggering a cluster of fires 40 kilometres ahead of the main fire front.”
Some B.C. communities are starting on work to close the gaps in this radically destabilizing relationship between forests, fires, and humans. “Many communities have become more resilient with the help of the FireSmart program,” The Tyee reports. “Last year, the Canadian government invested C$5 million toward the development of a wildland fire research network in Canada in collaboration with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.”
But the progress is not being experienced equally. While affluent or prioritized towns, cities, and parklands will have the tax bases to begin (however belatedly) to manage vegetation in and around their borders in ways that reflect wildfire science and Indigenous management practices, the communities most at risk do not have those same resources.
“This is one of the reasons why First Nations communities such as Lytton account for 40% of the evacuations in Canada,” The Tyee writes. “Their welfare is treated with less importance than those of tourists who spend big money in national parks.”
As of Monday, the Lytton fire covered 7,600 acres “and was still listed by the BC Wildfire Service as out of control,” the Globe writes. Some 700 wildfires recorded since spring began have “burned about 90,000 hectares of land, which is already more land burned than in all of 2019 and 2020 combined, and more than three times the 10-year average for early July.”