When he was a boy, Ron Tomma would leave after breakfast to run freely with his brother through their ancestral territory.

The brothers wouldn’t return home until dinner. But his mom knew the boys wouldn’t go hungry or thirsty. The land was a grocery store full of raspberry and huckleberry bushes. Pristine, drinkable streams ran like veins down the mountains to the lush valley.

Now, when Tomma hunts, he has to move carefully so he doesn’t trip or twist an ankle. Tomma, a knowledge keeper in his First Nation in B.C., has to push through undergrowth in a forest that was once as clear as hiking trails. Most of the berries are gone and the water is undrinkable. He blames the change on pesticide use by cattle ranchers and logging companies.

The landscape near Skwlāx's north subdivision. Catastrophic wildfires hit Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw in August 2023. Photo by Jen Osborne / Canada's National Observer

So, it was no surprise to him when the Bush Creek Fire tore through Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw, his First Nation about 70 kilometres from Kamloops. The wildfire destroyed 34 homes and 64 other structures. Scorched earth covered the region.

He sensed a fire could happen when he was out on the land for his hikes and hunts, manoeuvring through thick underbrush and patches of dead trees.

“I told some of our band members and higher-ups, if a fire were to ever hit Little Shuswap, it's going to burn,” he said. “It's going to take off, and there's going to be nothing left.”

The message is clear: Look after your forests

When it did burn, the Bush Creek fire fed on what fire professionals call fuel loads: flammable, dead vegetation that increases wildfire risk and severity.

Good fire, exemplified in Indigenous burning practices, heals the forest by burning excess grasses and branches to create space and fertilizer for berries and medicines that depend on fire to germinate. #Climate #Wildfire

The dead brush that lined the forest floor acted like kindling. The fire sailed with unrelenting winds for 20 kilometres into the valley where Skwlāx sits, and the forest’s fuel load lit up. The blaze was so severe, even the soil was scorched.

“We let [our forests] get away. We let the disease take over. We let the insects and pine beetle take over and kill our forests,” he said.

From 1999 to 2015, British Columbia faced a pine beetle infestation that tore through the province. By the end of the worst of the infestation, the pine beetle had affected 18.3 million hectares, more than five times the size of Vancouver Island. According to the province, 53 per cent of sellable pine, a leading source of valuable softwood, was killed.

But the risks extend far beyond damage to the industry. When trees die, they stand like tall matchsticks waiting for a wildfire season as devastating as 2023.

Now, Tomma has a message for other bands. Take a good look at your forests, especially within a 10-kilometre radius, and do what you can to clean it up. Harvest it for firewood or other resources, and ensure the community is protected from the big one that can devastate the way the Bush Creek fire did.

First Nations are on the front lines of fire and make up over 40 per cent of all wildfire-related evacuations, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. The fire season in 2023 was the worst evacuation year for Indigenous nations, nearly doubling the previous record set in 2021.

Tomma said the band did clear some debris from the forests, but it was not enough. It was too selective. “You can’t just do strips here and there. You have to do the whole territory.”

What was needed was a full assault on deadwood, using saws, mowers and other tools to manually remove flammable material.

Keith Finlay stands for a portrait in the fire-caused wreckage on the reserve. He works for the operations and maintenance team on Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw. Photo by Jen Osborne / Canada's National Observer

Burning to bring back the berries

Instead of relying on modern firefighting, First Nations across Canada are calling for the return of fire stewardship.

Fire stewardship is part of a new approach to forest management that also involves removing information silos around forest management and informing the public about the good use of fire on the landscape, said new wildfire mitigation research titled What We Heard. The report gathered feedback from First Nations in B.C., and other government and industry representatives.

Researcher James Whitehead, who co-authored the report, said the participants in the study agreed there is a need for more public education about the role of fire in forest management, otherwise known as “good fire,” Whitehead said.

Good fire, exemplified in Indigenous burning practices, heals the forest by burning excess grasses and branches to create space and fertilizer for berries and medicines that depend on fire to germinate. It also removes infestations by insects like pine beetles and ticks that cause diseases. Burning often takes place in the spring or fall when wet conditions allow for a low-intensity burn that is easier to control.

It’s a practice that was once common in Skwlāx territory, said Kukpi7 (Chief) James Tomma, brother to knowledge keeper Ron Tomma.

Kukpi7 (Chief) James Tomma and his wife have been displaced to this hotel room because their house burned in the Bush Creek fire in August 2023. Photo by Jen Osborne / Canada's National Observer

“Our family were some of the last few who burned, and everybody was always questioning us, ‘Why do you do that?’” he said.

Look at the difference, Kukpi7 Tomma said, recollecting the past. One side of the lake was green and full of berries and medicines; the other side, where the township was located, was choked out and brown and yellow.

“It served a purpose other than having fun lighting a fire,” he said, laughing.

For decades, good fire, often referred to as cultural burning, became criminalized and stigmatized across Canada. But now, there is a greater desire for it, even among forestry companies and a provincial government that saw nearly three million hectares burn in 2023.

Other jurisdictions, like fire-prone California, have passed laws that remove liability for tribes conducting controlled burns. The legislation does require specific regulations, like qualifications for burn expertise.

Forestry awakening to a need for fire

Even burning practices in the forestry industry are making a resurgence. Broadcast burning, the practice of burning after a clear-cut, is emerging as a viable option to smother the worsening wildfire crisis in the province. The practice ended in British Columbia in the 1990s, largely due to smoke concerns, Whitehead said.

But the challenge to re-introduce broadcast burning is similar to cultural burning: What happens when something goes wrong? How might that affect local economies dependent on forestry? How do you ensure someone has the skills and expertise to lead the burn? What are the liabilities if it gets out of hand?

Tomma thinks broadcast burning is needed, especially to cull invasive plants that choke medicines and berries harvested on Skwlāx territory and still depend on fire to open their seeds.

“Our plants that we need to survive on, they do need the fire for a head start,” he said.

A new vision for Skwlāx

In the past, when the elders of Skwlāx were harvesting a patch of berry bushes, they could tell when a burn was needed by the taste of the berries. If sweetness had left the harvest, it was time.

Now, Tomma wants to bring back patches of huckleberries, along with raspberries, strawberries and other medicines. Tomma envisions a new harvesting area after a significant clear-cut.

The conditions on Skwlāx traditional territories are now primed for that sort of experiment. Time is now ticking to harvest the hectares of torched trees before the lumber can no longer be salvaged. After two years, the wood is no longer sellable.

Tomma imagines taking a 10-acre (10-hectare) area to grow berries and medicines among sufficiently spaced-out trees. There is a desire to work toward the abundance that once bore five gallons of huckleberries in two days. Currently, it can take two days just to harvest a pint, Tomma said.

Ron Tomma stands inside his home to check on the heating as cold weather rolls into the area. Photo by Jen Osborne / Canada's National Observer

Tomma recognizes this practice runs against forestry norms, which focus on replanting similar trees sold as softwood lumber, such as pine, fir or spruce. But those trees are also the most conducive to catastrophic wildfire.

It’s yet to be seen if Tomma will have a receptive partner. B.C. is the only province to pass legislative recognition known as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA). The 2019 act signals a greater willingness to work with First Nations on ancestral practices like burning.

For Whitehead, the SFU researcher, co-governance was one of the significant parts of the shared “North Star” in his report, which acknowledges the desire of First Nations to have a greater role in future land-use planning.

For example, in the province’s DRIPA action plan released last year, B.C. mandated a revitalization of cultural burning. However, it’s still unclear if the province will take a similar legislative approach to California’s or fund First Nations to pursue a vision more in line with Tomma’s berry and medicine patch.

If the province does pass legislation similar to California’s, it would be the first jurisdiction to allow Indigenous-led burning in Canada. Until then, First Nations will continue to advocate for healthier forests of the past.

“Let the huckleberries come back,” Tomma said.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Keep reading

The Forest Practices Board has released a report on Landscape Fire Management. It calls for replacing the concept that all of British Columbia's forests should be conifers that at one time or another go through a sawmill. Instead, there should be a mosaic of forests of different ages and species, some recently burnt, some old. And open areas. And berry areas. Very slowly, we are learning that indigenous practices led to landscapes like this.
But the forest industry has quite a stranglehold on politics, and whether they'll give up without a fight is questionable.