Where have we come from and where are we going? Visioning more equitable fire governance in British Columbia

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This is the third post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.

Evacuating during the record-breaking wildfire season in British Columbia (BC) in 2017 made me realize that fire is not just an ecological phenomenon, but a deeply social one. With my roots in natural science, I did not expect to grow into a social scientist who thinks about wildfire from a social-ecological systems perspective. I also did not expect my research to be catalyzed and shaped by the ongoing trauma experienced by communities who are demanding a different way of dealing with wildfires. I did not expect to take on an advocacy role, blurring the (unfortunate) distinction between science and practice and policy. And yet, here I am, a non-Indigenous settler, learning from Secwépemc and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm peoples and unceded territories since 2016, examining the past to help guide a more equitable and proactive wildfire future centred on community wildfire resilience.

The 2017 Cariboo Complex Fires from Williams Lake, British Columbia. I evacuated from this fire, along with my community research partners, one year into my PhD at the University of British Columbia. Photo by the author.

Moving towards a place of community wildfire resilience, in which communities have the power to shape proactive wildfire management according to their own values and perspectives of resilience, ultimately led me to the question: “Why do communities currently feel so powerless to be wildfire resilient in BC today?” As historians, we know the importance of looking back in time to understand current issues and future trajectories. But the other part of the answer was not clear to me until I analysed it through the lens of historical fire governance. It is, and always has been, about who has the power to make decisions and implement their worldviews of fire through governance elements such as objectives, strategies, and legislation. By applying the lens of governance in our research, we traced the way power manifests through time in these different elements and how this power (or lack thereof) affects wildfire-related outcomes. In addition, we helped articulate a vision for the future of fire governance – one that centres on enabling community wildfire resilience. Ultimately, achieving this vision requires systematically addressing the power imbalance between the government and communities that has become embedded in decision-making through time.1

The history of fire governance in BC is not static, with some governance elements evolving rapidly in response to current political affairs (e.g., early colonization, wildlife and ecosystem protection, wildland-urban interface fires) and others evolving slowly as decision-making power shifted. Fire governance begins with Indigenous peoples, who have stewarded fire and fire-affected landscapes since time immemorial. They govern fire through place-based protocols, developed through time-tested observations, practices, and intergenerational teaching and learning. Their models of governance are embedded within broader objectives of seasonal stewardship and guided by knowledge keepers who view fire as beneficial. Indigenous practices of fire stewardship are as diverse as Indigenous communities – a diversity that is increasingly imperative for guiding culturally-appropriate wildfire resilience today.2

A seasonal calendar illustrating aspects of Indigenous fire stewardship. Concept by K. M. Hoffman and A. Cardinal Christianson, design by A. Langweider of Align Illustration. Image credit: Hoffman et al. 2022. Used with permission.

The history of fire governance inevitably tracks the history of colonization in BC, in which decision-making power was taken from diverse Indigenous communities and centralized within the colonial provincial government. Colonial worldviews of fire as destructive were institutionalized as early as the Bush Fire Act in 1874, and the objectives, strategies and legislation that followed over the next century aimed to exert control over – rather than respect the natural and cultural role of – fire.3 Even when objectives shifted later in the 20th century, such as in the 1970s when an emphasis on wildlife protection prompted efforts to restore or emulate the natural role of fire, decision-making power to implement new objectives was still held by the provincial government.4 This emphasis on government power reinforced the dangerous expectation that the government should be able to “control” all fires – an expectation increasingly at odds with the reality of record-breaking wildfire seasons in 2017, 2018 and 2021.

It is this legacy of government power that is slowest to change and that we continue to grapple with today, because inequitable power dynamics influence different forms of and opportunities for community wildfire resilience.5 How can Indigenous peoples revitalize their fire stewardship when access to their ancestral territories is restricted?6 How can the focus on reconciliation be leveraged to guide more ethical and equitable relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples? How can local communities implement proactive prevention and preparedness strategies if they are too small to access social and financial capacity?7 How can forest management practices be altered to reflect the importance of fire when decision-making is siloed between forest and fire managers? How can rigid government organizations that spent the last 150 years accumulating power dismantle decision-making processes that exclude diverse voices?8 Through the lens of historical fire governance, we have come to these key questions around power as those that must guide our advocacy with and for communities to help enable community wildfire resilience across BC.

Although challenging to overcome these legacies, the history of fire governance and rapidly shifting objectives also gives us reasons to be hopeful.9 We can be hopeful that we are entering a new era of coexisting with fire, where communities and governments share responsibility for addressing the complex social-ecological wildfire challenge. We can be hopeful because coexisting with fire centres the expertise of Indigenous communities and their time-tested fire stewardship. We can be hopeful because local communities are prioritizing wildfire resilience through innovative strategies, informed by local values. We are hopeful because we are witnessing the emergence of Indigenous and local communities leading efforts to be wildfire resilient. As a non-Indigenous settler here, I cannot claim the (hi)stories of fire as my own. But as a wildfire researcher living in BC, I do believe that I have a moral obligation to enhance community wildfire resilience. And today, I am hopeful because coexisting with fire means we are actively reconstructing a form of governance that brings together the diversity of peoples, knowledges, worldviews, and objectives of fire to ensure we can all equitably live with fire in the future.

Logan Lake Fire Chief Dan Leighton discussing the value of conducting fuels treatments in mitigating the wildfire risk with Logan Lake Secondary School students. The municipality of Logan Lake has been undertaking fire prevention and preparedness activities for decades, and these efforts helped avoid negative impacts from a wildfire in 2021. Photo courtesy of Garnet Mireau, RPF.


  1. K. Copes-Gerbitz, et al., “Transforming fire governance in British Columbia, Canada: an emerging vision for coexisting with fire,” Reg. Environ. Chang. 22 (2022): 1–15.
  2. K.M. Hoffman, et al., “The right to burn: barriers and opportunities for Indigenous-led fire stewardship in Canada,” FACETS 7 (2022): 464–481; F.K. Lake and A.C. Christianson, “Indigenous Fire Stewardship,” Encycl. Wildfires Wildland-Urban Interface Fires (2019). 1–9; S. Dickson-Hoyle et al., “Walking on two legs: a pathway of Indigenous restoration and reconciliation in fire-adapted landscapes,” Restoration Ecology 1­9 (2021).
  3. Lake and Christianson, “Indigenous Fire Stewardship”; J. Parminter, “Protection as conservation: safeguarding British Columbia’s forests from fire,” Ministry of Forests, Victoria, BC, 1981.
  4. Copes-Gerbitz, et al. “Transforming fire governance in British Columbia, Canada.”
  5. J. Burr, Listening to fire knowledges in and around the Okanagan Valley (podcast), 2022.
  6. Hoffman, et al. “The right to burn.”
  7. K. Copes-Gerbitz, et al., “Community Engagement With Proactive Wildfire Management in British Columbia, Canada: Perceptions, Preferences, and Barriers to Action,” Front. For. Glob. Chang 5 (2022):
  8. Copes-Gerbitz, et al. “Transforming fire governance in British Columbia, Canada.”
  9. J. Burr, Listening to fire knowledges in and around the Okanagan Valley.

Feature image: New growth after the White Lake Fire in 2017 near Williams Lake, British Columbia – one of the many forms of wildfire resilience in these landscapes. Photo by author.
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I am a fire ecologist and social scientist that conducts applied research on community wildfire resilience. I am an advocate for diverse community-driven solutions to help address the complex social-ecological wildfire challenge. I currently reside in British Columbia, Canada.

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