Gwich’in working to change how wildfires are fought

Last modified: September 14, 2020 at 8:07am

The Northwest Territories was lucky to have a more subdued wildfire season than normal this year. Elsewhere in the world, it’s a different story.

California is facing record-setting forest fires that have eaten up nearly three percent of state lands. Siberia has lost more than 30 million hectares to wildfires, according to satellite data from Greenpeace Russia.

To address the threat of wildfires across the Arctic, the Gwich’in Council International (GCI) – a permanent participant at the Arctic Council representing Gwich’in communities across North America – has launched the Circumpolar Wildland Fire project.


Part of the project focuses on sharing resources and training, but it’s also an opportunity to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into wildfire response.

“It’s absolutely integral that Gwich’in voices, Inuit voices, Sámi voices, Indigenous people in Russia, that their voices are heard and understood, so that we have the best management practices at the table … practices that have persisted for thousands of years in these different areas,” said Edward Alexander, co-chair of the GCI.

Alexander is Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, Alaska.

He says Indigenous communities have long had their own means of managing and understanding wildfires in the Arctic. For example, Gwich’in would purposely burn through grassy meadows each springtime.

“It removes growth from these lakes and from these meadows, and it also increases biodiversity,” Alexander said. “So, when the grasslands burn, it doesn’t just come back as grass, it comes back as flowers and lots of different kinds of plants after a fire goes through.


“While the ground is still frozen like that, all the root systems of these plants are protected. And so you’re not actually harming these plants, you’re just priming them for growth, and you’re actually fertilizing the area.

“It could increase the carrying capacity for that land, too. Instead of having a moose having one calf, you can have a moose having two calves or three calves. It increases the nutritional value that the animals are working with.”

A fire crew from Fort Yukon, Alaska works to tackle the ongoing wildfires in California. Photo: Submitted

If utilized responsibly, Alexander believes Gwich’in techniques offer powerful options to address wildfires.   


“These traditional Gwich’in fire management practices are also carbon negative. By having fires in this manner, it actually stores carbon in the soil,” he said.

Gwich’in crew in California

Delvin Fernandes is the Executive Director for the GCI and is based in Yellowknife. She says Indigenous practices in these areas have been undervalued.

“We are moving towards an approach that says the scientists don’t know everything and people who have been in your community for generations, they have a lot of value that we should be listening to. And that is opening doors,” Fernandes said.

The Alaska community of Fort Yukon’s fire crew is entirely comprised of Gwich’in firefighters.

Led by superintendent Dion Alexander – Edward’s cousin – the crew of 20 is currently fighting wildfires in Reno, California as the state battles record-breaking blazes.

“I live in Fairbanks, actually, and [the state] called me and they asked me if I would take a Type Two crew and be the superintendent,” Dion Alexander explained. “And I said, ‘Yeah!’

“We are in California for the first time, and it’s hot, and it’s burning, and you’ve got to be aware.”

The crew ranges in experience and age from fighters in their fifties to a 19-year-old. By September 22, they will have been on the fire-line for 30 days – and they expect to be contracted to stay longer.

The life of a wildfire crew is “like Groundhog Day,” Alexander said. For 10 days at time, they get up and head out to the next fire. They’ve fought four so far, with more to come.

Alexander has been fighting fires for 25 years, something he described as his “legacy.”

It can be a draining lifestyle, he admitted. Many members of the crew are sad they’re missing out on moose hunting season.

“Here in California, we don’t eat rattlesnakes,” he said. “We don’t eat bugs and stuff.

“[The crew misses] home. They want to go hunting to provide for their family.

“But when we’re all in the fire, we are a team. There’s no favouritism. Get the job done, and we’ll go home and go hunting. We work together. We’re family.”

‘Fire doesn’t respect territorial integrity’

At the moment, there is no comparable crew in the NWT.

“In the Northwest Territories, fire is primarily a territorial response,” Fernandes said. “So there may be Gwich’in participants who fight fires who are on a crew that may get deployed in international circumstances, but there wouldn’t necessarily be a specific Gwich’in crew at this point.”

The Fort Yukon fire crew. Photo: Submitted

In other parts of Canada, Indigenous communities have established fire services. Both the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society in BC and Yukon First Nations Wildfire offer fire management training for Indigenous youth.  

Dion Alexander wants to be able to bring his crew to help with wildfires on the Canadian side of the border, but the restrictions that come with crossing international borders – which have colonially divided Gwich’in communities – are difficult to navigate.

“Canada won’t let in firefighters with DUIs and stuff,” he said. “Why can’t there be leniency? We’re proud to help our fellow Canadian people, our Gwich’in. But they’re not helping us by saying, ‘No, you’re not allowed to come in.’”

There’s always the possibility of new Gwich’in crews being established in the NWT, Fernandes said.

“That could be really fascinating because you would have local resources who could be deployed very early in addressing issues,” she said.

Edward Alexander echoed Fernandes’ sentiment, providing another example of using longstanding knowledge to prepare for firefighting.

“For example, we might dig a hole and it just looks like a hole to somebody from outside,” he said.

A crew member has some fun on the job. Photo: Submitted

“But we know that during the course of that day, that hole is going to fill up with water. And we can use that water to fill up our bags and create shorter travel times for our firefighters to get water, and use that water to put out hotspots, to control a line. There’s a lot of expertise that people get over decades of fighting wildland fire.”

The Circumpolar Wildland Fire project is just getting under way. It was first proposed at a conference in Iceland last year, then its first working group met in June.

“We know that fire doesn’t respect territorial integrity,” Alexander said.

“Fire goes across boundary lines; smoke goes across boundary lines. And so, our cooperation in the Arctic must also be trans-boundary.”