IN 2023, CANADA EXPERIENCED ONE OF ITS WORST WILDFIRE SEASONS in modern history, with more than 25 million acres burned and hazardous smoke covering large swaths of the country at any given time. In response, Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais and a team of researchers at UBC Okanagan are advocating for a specific approach to help prevent these fires in the first place.
Start more fires.
While it sounds unorthodox, carefully planned, small-scale controlled burns in strategic areas can yield a variety of benefits, says Dr. Bourbonnais. They remove accumulated dry fuel for future fires, make breaks in massive expanses of forest and even help regenerate entire ecosystems that can restart and thrive in burned-out areas.
It’s an idea the general public may be hesitant to embrace.
“Gaining the social license and acceptance to put fire back on the landscape, on purpose, is a huge challenge,” explains Dr. Bourbonnais, an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences.
It’s why he and his colleagues have established the Living with Wildfire Research Cluster—a multi-disciplinary team of experts from across the university dedicated to, among other things, helping address wildfire challenges in the BC interior.
One of four research clusters recently established by the Office of the Vice Principal of Research and Innovation, clusters are interdisciplinary networks of researchers focused on solving key challenges facing society. Since 2017, more than $9 million in funding support has been provided to research clusters at UBC Okanagan.
Understanding wildfires requires a multidisciplinary lens, says Dr. Bourbonnais.
The Living with Wildfire cluster consists of a team of experts who specialize in everything from science, geography and economics to history, visual arts and creative and critical studies.
Together, they bring a range of perspectives to the issue of wildfire in the Okanagan and will work to study and explain it from a number of angles, and through a variety of mediums.
“There’s a lot more to this than just wildfire science—there’s things like fire behaviour and weather patterns. It’s also about the associated geographical implications, the economic impacts of fire and learning how to better engage with, and educate, people and communities around the need for these proactive, prescribed burns.”
There’s also a historical component.
Prior to the early 1900s, the application of fire was an important Indigenous cultural practice, and those communities held that knowledge and passed it along to subsequent generations.
But when the systemic racism of the time began to take over, things changed.
“Indigenous people were being threatened with jail for even starting a fire,” says Dr. Bourbonnais. “The tension of traditional cultural practices and natural processes coming up against the more recent practices of fire suppression continued for a hundred years, and we’re now in a spot where we can’t suppress all the fires anyway.”
As society continues to push back against something that occurs naturally in our ecosystems, Dr. Bourbonnais says we’re losing the fight.
It’s why he and his colleagues also hope to explore partnering with local Indigenous communities to learn more about past approaches to living with fire, as well as some benefits of those fires.
“In some instances, food sources, like huckleberries, are well-adapted to fire being on the landscape. We can learn a lot from our Indigenous partners in a huge number of areas.”
As they work to help local communities better understand proactive burns and the benefits of learning to live with wildfire, they hope to explore several potential approaches. These include everything from town halls and meetings with policy makers to planning community events like photography shows and art exhibits.
Since current practices have shrunk the area where fire exists naturally to a point where there’s limited space left for it to operate, Dr. Bourbonnais says he hopes he and his colleagues can help build the political will and social acceptance to turn things around.
“It almost comes down to the question of ‘how do you want your smoke?’” he says. “A couple days in the spring and fall, when conditions are best for controlled burns, or weeks at a time all summer long from out-of-control fires?”
While there’s no quick fix, Dr. Bourbonnais remains cautiously optimistic.
“This isn’t to say we won’t still get large fires, but this approach is our best opportunity to protect our communities and our ecosystems from further unnecessary destruction, and to help re-establish these vital natural processes.”