WATERLOO — Traditional Indigenous practices of controlled fires can prevent catastrophic wildfires like those recently ravaging northwestern Ontario forests while also boosting biodiversity, a new study by Waterloo researchers found.
However, Indigenous fire stewardship that has long been used across the world has been disrupted by colonization and the decline in biodiversity that followed has resulted in more severe fire activity.
“The relationship we have with fire is quite broken,” said Andrew Trant, associate professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.
Colonial land management aims to stop all fires, but that approach combined with warmer and drier conditions linked to climate change has lead to increasingly worse wildfires.
“These fires do really well when the landscape looks the same,” said Trant, who co-authored the study.
The research team reviewed papers published from 1900 to today to look at the impact of Indigenous fire stewardship across the planet, finding in almost all situations biodiversity was enhanced.
Done for a variety of reasons including resource management, community protection and cultural purposes, the careful and strategic burning based on intergenerational knowledge leads to a landscape that’s a varied patchwork.
“Those are perfect conditions for biodiversity,” Trant said. “It’s also good for preventing large, catastrophic fires.”
Fire is used as a tool to change the ecosystem and cultural burning is still being practised in all different biomes around the planet, including rainforests where it would seem too wet to burn.
“Having more of these fires is a good thing,” Trant said.
However, he said to do that the cultural perception of fire needs to change.
For more than a century, fires have been suppressed out of fear they will burn out of control. But scientific evidence, along with Indigenous knowledge, shows that fire is a necessary and healthy part of functioning ecosystems.
“It’s a different kind of fire,” Trant said.
This kind of controlled fire can reduce the risk of wildfires, which can cause widespread damage to both natural and urban landscapes.
“It’s going to be a gradual process,” Trant said. “We’re just so conditioned to be afraid of fire.
The study co-authored by Kira Hoffman, a recent post-doctoral fellow at UW’s environment faculty, Emma Davis and Sara Wickham were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.