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Indigenous communities are taking action to manage and improve air quality. Indoor and outdoor air quality are affected by weather and climate change effects. As noted in Chapter 2 of the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate Report, changes in ground-level ozone, increases in airborne pollutants due to warmer temperatures, and smoke due to extreme wildfires, all negatively affect air quality and Indigenous respiratory health.

Sioux Lookout First Nation Health, the Nishnawbe First Nation, Health Canada, and university researchers conducted a research study to measure indoor air quality, explore its links with high rates in respiratory infections among Indigenous children, and find solutions. Study findings were published recently and supported efforts in the Sioux Lookout Region to address associated factors in indoor air quality, such as poor housing conditions, including repairs. and lack of functioning controlled ventilation.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) notes that fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke poses the greatest risk to respiratory health. However, remaining confined indoors during a wildfire poses additional health complications, including mental health impacts and physical inactivity. In 2014, Yellowknife Dene partnered with Ecology North and created videos to show how they organized physical activities to escape from the “Summer of Smoke” and social activities to prevent the isolation of community members.

Changes to both physical infrastructure and social activities within Indigenous communities can go far to improve air quality—a serious factor affecting Indigenous health in a changing climate.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Vlad Kutepov, Unsplash)

According to the 2022 UNEP’s Frontiers Report, the regime of wildfires affecting Earth’s ecosystems is changing.  The changes are due to increases in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the atmosphere, changes in land use, and other human activities.

Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that burn in vegetation. While some fires are naturally occurring, other fires are started by humans as a land management practice, to clear land for human settlements, deforestation, resource extraction, and agricultural use, all of which interfere with the natural occurrence of fires. Fire regimes involve three factors: the severity and intensity of a fire, the frequency of a fire, and the time of year or season of the fire.

Extreme weather events are also contributing to shifts in fire regimes, and global warming influences longer fire seasons. For example, monitoring conducted by Natural Resources Canada indicates that with drier conditions expected in the years ahead, there will be a “1.5-fold increase in the number of large fires by the end of the 21st century.”

While providing valuable information on the ecology of wildfires, the 2022 UNEP Frontier’s Report highlights the importance of developing a “system and whole-of-landscape approach” to fire and land management that draws from Indigenous cultural and ecological knowledge to manage wildfires. Indigenous Fire Stewardship (IFS) and Indigenous fire management practices in the fire-prone savannahs of North Australia, Brazil, and Botswana are a few approaches that have been proven to be effective in managing the changing regime of wildfires.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Photo Credit: Joanne Francis, Unsplash)

Extreme heat and the resultant forest fires are an annual occurrence in Canada. The impacts can be devastating for communities and could alter Earth’s climate. There is growing recognition that Indigenous fire stewardship has a positive long-term impact on managing forests and mitigating the risk of uncontrollable fires around the world.

Indigenous fire stewardship (IFS) is the use of fire by diverse Indigenous people to assist in “responding to climate and local environmental conditions to promote desired landscapes, habitats, [and] species.” IFS serves “to increase the abundance of favored resources to sustain knowledge systems, ceremonial, and subsistence practices, economies, and livelihoods.” Indigenous fire stewardship practices are collaborative and attempt to support communities to become more “fire dependent” by enhancing a community’s reliance on fire to create optimal conditions in the landscape that support a community’s livelihood and capacity to protect the ecosystem from the adverse impacts of wildfires. This compares to simply being “fire adaptive” and remaining “informed and prepared” to “safely coexist with wildland fire.”

Diverse Indigenous nations are implementing fire stewardship practices and are “revitalizing traditional burning” to develop “wildfire mitigation strategies that can maintain or enhance cultural attributes of First Nations communities.” Also referred to as “cultural burning” the controlled burning of dead grass, for example, improves the habitat for some animal species, and encourages new vegetation. Drawing from intergenerational knowledge about fire and sharing “beliefs and practices among fire-dependent cultures,” IFS consists of a combination of “fire regimes, fire effects, and the role of cultural burning in fire-prone ecosystems and habitats.” The impact of IFS on Indigenous communities is strongest where there is also a connection between rural wildland and urban regions, and where a combination of permanent and seasonal human settlements exists, along with trails and roads that involve managed habitats for food, among other gifts of Mother Nature.

Along the West Coast of the United States (i.e., region of California), the Karuk Tribe and the Yurok Tribe have engaged in partnerships with the Nature Conservancy Training Exchange (TREX) and the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership to ensure that Indigenous fire stewardship practices are implemented across multiple tribal, federal, and private lands and jurisdictions. In another example, The First Nations Adapt Program, funded by Indigenous Services Canada,  assesses  “climate change vulnerabilities and [identifies] Indigenous cultural values and traditional burning knowledge.” The partnership of The First Nations Emergency Services Society – Forest Fuel Management (FFM) and three First Nations communities, the Shackan Indian Band, Xwisten (Bridge River First Nation) and the Yunesit’n National Government, has resulted in key educational outcomes including a storytelling project and videos from the Shackan and Xwisten Indian Bands, outlining the importance of cultural burning revitalization.

Given that complete fire suppression is impossible, fire can be used as a tool for forest management. In turn, centuries-old Indigenous practices of controlled burning – fighting fire with fire – must become part of a global solution to reduce the risk of wildfires ravaging the planet.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Matt Palmer, Unsplash)