Pathways to Cooperative Community Wildfire Response with First Nations
Phase 1 Research Report
Impacts from wildfires are growing in British Columbia (BC) and First Nations communities have long been calling to be partners and leaders in wildfire response. Recognizing this need, the Cooperative Community Wildfire Response Project (“the CCWR project”) was initiated in September 2022 to explore the existing capacities and potential cooperative opportunities for First Nations and agencies in wildfire response. The project was guided a Project Team from BC Wildfire Service, the First Nations Emergency Services Society, Indigenous Services Canada, and was conducted by the Research Team from the University of British Columbia (including Dr. Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz and Vanessa Comeau). This report presents findings from the Phase 1 research of the CCWR project, which scoped preliminary ideas to guide the expansion and ongoing development of opportunities for First Nations in wildfire response. Scoping included a systematic document review of First Nations, independent, and Provincial and Federal Government reports on wildfires since 2017 as well as interviews with First Nations and agency experts. This report highlights the motivations, diverse existing capacities, priority opportunities, and ongoing processes required to enhance cooperative pathways for First Nations leadership and partnership in wildfire response.
There is broad agreement that wildfire risk is increasing due to climate change and there is a need to enhance capacity to respond to this growing threat. First Nations and provincial and federal agencies are aligned on the need to build capacity for wildfire response, which is catalyzing cooperation. In addition, some First Nations are motivated to build capacity for wildfire response because it is their authority and responsibility to do so while others feel they need to be equipped to look after themselves during busy wildfire seasons. Complementing these community-led efforts is the provincial and federal government commitment to reconciliation, which is mandating change. Collectively, these motivations are bringing First Nations, provincial agencies, and federal agencies together towards cooperative community wildfire response.
Building cooperative pathways for wildfire response means first recognizing diverse existing capacities already held by First Nations. These capacities are built through experiential learning, intergenerational teachings, and intentional capacity-building efforts. First Nations leadership is a critical but often overlooked form of capacity that plays a pivotal role in First Nations’ ability to contribute to wildfire response. A commonly recognized form of capacity is the traditional ecological and local knowledge, which can be an important entry point for First Nations. In addition, existing wildfire response capacities include individuals with expertise and experience, appropriate equipment and infrastructure, funding, and formal and informal partnerships and relationships. Respecting these existing capacities and connecting them to First Nations’ priority opportunities is an important pathway towards cooperative wildfire response.
The priority opportunities for First Nations partnership and leadership in wildfire response are diverse – there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some of the priority opportunities include fully equipped wildfire response crews; First Nations Community Liaisons; ad-hoc (temporary) incident supports; employment opportunities within BC Wildfire Service; fully funded and full-time Emergency Management Coordinators; formal service and aid agreements; and full-time, cross trained wildland, structural, and emergency response crews within First Nations communities.
Creating pathways to translate existing capacities to priority opportunities in wildfire response requires an ongoing focus on cooperative processes by supporting agencies and First Nations. These processes can help address many of the challenges articulated by First Nations communities and build on previous recommendations and calls to action. First, agencies must continue to prioritize relationship-building by enhancing early and often communication, building relationships through respect, and equipping individuals to build trust. Second, there is a need to clarify the legal landscape and respect First Nations inherent Rights and Title. Third, disparate, siloed, and administratively burdensome funding opportunities for wildfire and emergency management must be enhanced and streamlined, ideally towards a program-based model. Finally, agencies must recognize that racism towards First Nations is ongoing within agency cultures and in society more broadly – there are difficult conversations needed to work towards healing and building the relationships and trust necessary to enable productive cooperation in wildfire response.
Another important synergy for cooperative community wildfire response is the collective recognition that wildfire response does not operate independently from wildfire management (including prevention, preparedness, and recovery) or from emergency management more broadly. Wildfire and emergency management contain important pathways that, if approached strategically, can enhance opportunities for First Nations in wildfire response according to their priorities. In addition, the Indigenous Guardian program may be an important and rapidly expanding opportunity to build capacity for wildfire response and emergency management.
Achieving Cooperative Community Wildfire Response with First Nations requires ongoing commitments from agencies at strategic and operational levels that are flexible and responsive to the needs of individual First Nations communities. While efforts have been made since the 2003 wildfire season to focus on proactive wildfire management, it was the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons that catalyzed a focus on First Nations partnership and leadership. Agencies are working towards enabling cooperative approaches, yet there remains much collective work to be done. As one expert stated: How can we work together? How can we work together to protect and conserve our forests, and build stronger self-reliant communities for our future generations? This research is a single step towards working together for a more cooperative future.