Breathing Fire into Landscapes that Burn: Wildfire Management in a Time of Alterlife
Across the globe, settler nation-states are being forced to contend with the large-scale ecological and social disruptions caused by settler colonialism. Wildfires are a charismatic example of this: when anthropogenic climate change combines with colonial forest management practices, wildfires act in ever changing ways with often violent and uneven impacts to human and nonhuman life. In a context of environmental change, managers, fire ecologists, and politicians alike are increasingly looking to reintroduce fire as a way of restoring “natural” forest landscapes while reducing fire suppression costs. In this paper, I examine one such policy of fire re-integration, in what is currently the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the homelands of more than 50,000 Indigenous people (Cree, Dakota, Dene, Métis) who live in the province’s Boreal Forest region. In 2004, the Province implemented a controversial policy that locals colloquially refer to as “Let-it-Burn,” where fires are allowed to burn until they encroach upon something designated of “value” (typically human life, community structures, public infrastructure, and commercial timber). While wildfire managers, scientists, and politicians alike consistently advocate for policies of fire-reintegration as ecologically-sound and financially responsible ways forward with fire management, many locals have argued that “Let-it-Burn” is a direct affront to Indigenous sovereignty, destroying contemporary forest landscapes and rebuilding them through state-sanctioned settler values. Breathing fire back into landscapes that burn is a peculiar solution that at once acknowledges and erases the effects of fire’s removal through policies of restoration that risk ignoring the ongoingness of life in forested areas. Through interviews and archival and ethnographic fieldwork, this paper traces the history of the province’s “Let-it-Burn” policy, asking the question, “how to burn well in compromised lands?” As a way forward with fire reintegration (or not), I highlight the necessity of Indigenous partnership, leadership, and direction within fire management practices on Indigenous territory, which may include fire suppression. This paper adds to STS scholarship on ecological ruination and alterlife, arguing that wildfire management practices are likely to cause harm so long as the effects of settler colonialism are placed in the past and Indigenous rebuilding is erased.
Acton, D., Padbury, G., Stushnoff, C., Gallagher, L, Gauthier, D., Kelly, L., Radenbaugh, T., and J. Thorpe. 1998. The Ecoregions of Saskatchewan. Regina, SK: Canada Plains Research Center/Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management.
Bramadat-Willcock, M. (2020). “'Let it burn': Suicide prevention policy likened to wildfires.” National Observer, August 13. Accessed 13 August 2020. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/08/13/news/let-it-burn-suicide-prevention-policy-likened-wildfires
Beckett, C., and A. Keeling. 2019. “Rethinking remediation: Mine reclamation, environmental justice, and relations of care.” Local Environment 24(3): 216-230.
Bilbao, B., Mistry, J., Millán, A., and A. Berardi. 2019. “Sharing Multiple Perspectives on Burning: Towards a Participatory and Intercultural Fire Management Policy in Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana.” Fire, 2(3): 39.
Bourke, M., Atkinson, A., and T. Neale. 2020. “Putting Country back together: a conversation about collaboration and Aboriginal fire management.” Postcolonial Studies, 1-6.
Brussard, P., Reed, J. and C. Tracy. 1998. “Ecosystem management: what is it really?” Landscape and Urban Planning 40 (1-3): 9-20.
Cameron, E. S. 2012. “Securing Indigenous politics: A critique of the vulnerability and adaptation approach to the human dimensions of climate change in the Canadian Arctic.” Global Environmental Change, 22(1): 103-114.
Cameron, L., and S. Earley. 2015. “The ecosystem—movements, connections, tensions and translations.” Geoforum, 65: 473-481.
Christianson, A. 2015. “Social science research on Indigenous wildfire management in the 21st century and future research needs.” International Journal of Wildland Fire 24(2): 190-200.
Coulthard, G. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Davis, H., and Z. Todd. 2017. “On the importance of a date, or, decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 16(4): 761-780.
Eisenberg, C., Anderson, C., Collingwood, A., Sissons, R., Dunn, C., Meigs, G., Hibbs, D., Murphy, S., Kuiper, S., SpearChief-Morris, J., Little Bear, L., Johnston, B and C. Edson. 2019. “Out of the ashes: Ecological resilience to extreme wildfire, prescribed burns, and indigenous burning in ecosystems.” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7.
Gan, R. W., Ford, B., Lassman, W., Pfister, G., Vaidyanathan, A., Fischer, E., Volckens, J., Pierce, J. R. and S. Magzamen. 2017. “Comparison of wildfire smoke estimation methods and associations with cardiopulmonary‐related hospital admissions.” GeoHealth 1(3): 122-136.
Government of Saskatchewan n.d. Wildfire Operations. Available online: https://www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/environment-public-health-and-safety/wildfire-in-saskatchewan/wildfire-operations Accessed 20 November 2019.
Government of Saskatchewan. 2016. Wildfire Management Strategic Framework. Power Point Presentation. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Government of Saskatchewan. 2019. Range Plan for Woodland Caribou in Saskatchewan: Boreal Plan Ecozone- SK2 Central Caribou Administration Unit. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Haraway, D. J. 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hicks, G. 2017. “No ‘Let it Burn’ Wildfire Policy: Wildfire Management.” SaskNow, October 31. Accessed 21 October 2019. https://sasknow.com/2017/10/31/no-let-it-burn-wildfire-policy-wildfire-management/
Ingalsbee, T. 2017. “Whither the paradigm shift? Large wildland fires and the wildfire paradox offer opportunities for a new paradigm of ecological fire management.” International Journal of Wildland Fire 26(7): 557-561.
Joly, K., Jandt, R.R. and D.R. Klein. 2009. “Decrease of lichens in Arctic ecosystems: the role of wildfire, caribou, reindeer, competition and climate in north-western Alaska.” Polar Research 28(3): 433-442.
Kenner, A. 2018. Breathtaking: Asthma care in a time of climate change. Minneapolis, MN. University of Minnesota Press.
Kimmerer, R. W. and F. K. Lake. 2001. “The role of indigenous burning in land management.” Journal of Forestry, 99(11): 36-41.
Kolden, C.A. and J. Rogan. 2013. “Mapping wildfire burn severity in the Arctic tundra from down sampled MODIS data.” Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 45(1): 64-76.
Konopelny, P. 1993. An Evaluation of Manitoba's Forest Fire Preparedness System. Master’s Thesis, Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba.
Konsmo, E. M. and K. Recollet. 2019. “Meeting the land(s) where they are at: A conversation between Erin Marie Konsmo (Métis) and Karyn Recollet (Urban Cree).” In Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education: Mapping the long view, edited by L. T. Smith, E. Tuck, & K. W. Yang, 238-251. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lake, F. K., Wright, V., Morgan, P., McFadzen, M., McWethy, D. and C. Stevens-Rumann. 2017. “Returning fire to the land: celebrating traditional knowledge and fire.” Journal of Forestry. 115(5): 343-353.
Lammes, S. 2017. “Digital mapping interfaces: From immutable mobiles to mutable images.” New Media & Society 19(7): 1019-1033.
Le, G. E., Breysse, P. N., McDermott, A., Eftim, S. E., Geyh, A., Berman, J. D., and F. Curriero. 2014. “Canadian forest fires and the effects of long-range transboundary air pollution on hospitalizations among the elderly.” ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 3(2): 713-731.
Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan. 2006. Standing Committee on the Economy: Hansard Verbatim Report, No. 32. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Lewis, M., Christianson, A., and M. Spinks. 2018. “Return to flame: reasons for burning in Lytton First Nation, British Columbia.” Journal of Forestry, 116(2): 143-150.
Liboiron, M. 2017. “Compromised agency: The case of BabyLegs.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 3: 499-527.
Liboiron, M. 2018. “Waste colonialism.” Discard Studies, November 1. Accessed 1 November 2018. https://discardstudies.com/2018/11/01/waste-colonialism/
Liboiron, M. 2021. Pollution is Colonialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Massie, M. 2010. At the Edge: the North Prince Albert Region of the Saskatchewan Forest Fringe to 1940. Doctoral dissertation, Saskatoon, SK: University of Saskatchewan.
Miller, A. M., Davidson-Hunt, I. J., and P. Peters. 2010. “Talking about fire: Pikangikum First Nation elders guiding fire management.” Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 40(12): 2290-2301.
Ministry of Environment. 2016a. SOP Name: Wildfire Management Strategies and Priorities, SOP# OPS311.1. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Ministry of Environment. 2016b. SOP Name: Values Protection- Sprinklers, SOP#: OPS311.4. Wildfire Management Operational Policy and Procedure Manual. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Morin, G. (Elder). 2017. Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation North Eastern Saskatchewan Wildfires. Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.
Murphy, M. 2015. “Unsettling care: Troubling transnational itineraries of care in feminist health practices.” Social Studies of Science 45(5): 625-641.
Murphy, M. 2017. “Alterlife and decolonial chemical relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 494-503.
Murphy, M., 2018. “Against population, towards alterlife.” In Making Kin Not Population. Edited by A. Clarke and D. Haraway, 101-124. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Neale, T. 2018. “Digging for fire: Finding control on the Australian continent.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 5(1): 79-90.
Neale, T. 2020. “What are whitefellas talking about when we talk about “cultural burning”?.” Inside Story, 17 April. Accessed 20 April 2020. https://insidestory.org.au/what-are-whitefellas-talking-about-when-we-talk-about-cultural-burning/
Neale, T., Zahara, A. and W. Smith. 2019. "An eternal flame: the elemental governance of wildfire’s pasts, presents and futures." Cultural Studies Review 25(2): 115-134.
New North. 2013. Wildfire: Brief Overview and Talking Points. La Ronge, SK: New North.
NITHA. 2018. 2015 Northern Saskatchewan Wildfire Study. Prince Albert, SK: Treppel Consulting.
Norgaard, K. 2019. Salmon and Acorns Feed our People. Newark, NJ: Rutgers.
Northern Trappers Alliance. 2014. “Trappers Block Oil Companies in Northwestern Saskatchewan.” The Media Co-Op, November 19. Accessed 5 November 2019. http://www.mediacoop.ca/newsrelease/32223
PAGC. 2018. Fighting Forest Fires in Northern Saskatchewan: Task Force Interim Report. Prince Albert, SK: Prince Albert Grand Council.
Poole, M., Merasty, J., & J. Waldram. (2020). "Like Residential Schools All Over Again" “tāskoc kitimāhtāsowi kiskinwahamākewin asamīna”: Experiences of Emergency Evacuation from the Assin’skowitiniwak (Rocky Cree) Community of Pelican Narrows. Saskatoon, SK: University of Saskatchewan.
Pyne, S. 1997. World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Pyne, S. 2007. Awful Splendour–A History of Fire in Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
Quiring, D. 2004. CCF Colonialism in Northern Saskatchewan: Battling Parish Priests, Bootleggers, and Fur Sharks. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
Saskatchewan Environment. 1996. Forest Fire Policy Study- 1995. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan Environment. 2002a. Fire and Forest Insect and Disease Policy Development Report on Phase 1 Consultations. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan Environment. 2002b. Fire and Forest Insect and Disease Policy Development Report on Phase 2 Public Consultations. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan Environment. 2003. Fire and Forest Insect and Disease Management Policy Framework Document. Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan.
Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 2015. “Province denies ‘let it burn’ policy.” Saskatoon StarPhoenix, July 5. Accessed 4 February 2020. https://thestarphoenix.com/news/province-denies-let-it-burn-policy
Sherry, J., Neale, T., McGee, T.K. and M. Sharpe. 2019. “Rethinking the maps: a case study of knowledge incorporation in Canadian wildfire risk management and planning.” Journal of environmental management 234: 494-502.
Smith, L. T. 2012. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London, UK & New York, NY: Zed Books Ltd.
Smith, W. 2020. Mountains of Blame: Climate and Culpability in the Philippine uplands. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Sutherland, C. R. 2019. “Encountering the burn: Prescribed burns as contact zones.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(4): 781-798.
TallBear, K. 2014. “Standing with and speaking as faith: A feminist-indigenous approach to inquiry.” Journal of Research Practice, 10(2): N17-N17.
TallBear, K. 2017. “Kim Tallbear: Future Imaginary Dialogues (transcript)”, 3 March 2017, Concordia University. Accessed 12 March 2020. http://indigenousfutures.net/outputs/future-imaginary-dialogues/
Thomassin, A., Neale, T. and J. Weir. 2019. “The natural hazard sector's engagement with Indigenous peoples: a critical review of CANZUS countries.” Geographical Research, 57(2): 164-177.
Todd, Z. 2017. “Fish, kin and hope: Tending to water violations in Amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 43(1): 102-107.
Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Tuck, E. 2009. “Suspending damage: A letter to communities.” Harvard Educational Review, 79(3): 409-428.
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1): 1-40.
Van Wagner, C. E.., Finney, M. A., and M. Heathcott. 2006. “Historical fire cycles in the Canadian Rocky Mountain parks.” Forest Science, 52(6): 704-717.
Walker, H. M., Reed, M. G., and A. J. Fletcher, A. 2020. “Wildfire in the news media: An intersectional critical frame analysis.” Geoforum, 114: 128-137.
Watson, A., Matt, R., Waters, T., Gunderson, K., Carver, S., and B. Davis. 2009. “Mapping tradeoffs in values at risk at the interface between wilderness and non-wilderness lands.” In Gonzalez-Caban, Armando, tech. coord. Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning, and Policy: Common Problems and Approaches. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-227 (English), 375-387. Albany, CA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.
Welch, R. 2012. “Effects of fire on intangible cultural resources: moving toward a landscape approach.” In Wildland Fire in Ecosystems: Effects of Fire on Cultural Resources and Archaeology, edited by KC Ryan, AT Jones, CL Koerner, KM Lee, 157-170. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, General Technical Report RMRS-GTR- 42.
Whyte, K. P. 2016a. “Indigenous experience, environmental justice and settler colonialism.” In Nature and Experience: Phenomenology and the Environment. Edited by B. Bannon, 157-174. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Whyte, K. P. 2016b. “Is it colonial déjà vu? Indigenous peoples and climate injustice.” In Humanities for the Environment. Edited by J. Adamson and M. Davis, 102-119. New York, NY: Routledge.
Whyte, K. P. 2017. “What Do Indigenous Knowledges Do for Indigenous Peoples?” in Keepers of the Green World: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Sustainability. Edited by M.K. Nelson and D. Shilling, 57-81. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Whyte, K.P. 2018. “Settler colonialism, ecology, and environmental injustice.” Environment and Society 9(1): 125-144.
Wolfe, P. 1999. Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology. New York, NY: Cassell.
Wynne, B. 2006. “Public engagement as a means of restoring public trust in science—hitting the notes, but missing the music?” Community Genetics 9: 211-210.
Your Forest. 2019. “Welcome to Good Fire.” 3 September. Accessed 18 August 2020. Available online: https://yourforestpodcast.com/good-fire-podcast/2019/9/2/welcome-to-good-fire.
Copyright (c) 2020 Alex Zahara
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Authors of all content published in ESTS retain the copyright to their work, and agree to license them under one of the following Creative Commons licenses CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, CC BY 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, and refer to the individual article footer for specific licensing data. Please read our open access policy for more information.