Stswecem’c Xget’tem First Nation and UBC Forestry Students Collaborate to Shape the Future of Fire Stewardship 

The Stswecem’c Xget’tem First Nation (SXFN) and students from UBC Forestry are working together to find community-driven and decolonized solutions to wildfires in British Columbia. 

In recent years, wildfires in interior dry forests of British Columbia have shifted to become larger and more severe due to climate change and the legacy of settler-colonial land management. These fires have particularly endangered remote Indigenous communities, including Stswecem’c Xget’tem First Nation (SXFN), prompting concern for the safety of these communities under current and future climatic conditions.

“Rural, remote Indigenous communities often face more barriers in implementing wildfire mitigation and this is a serious social and environmental justice issue.”  

– Georgina Preston, MSc student, Department of Forest Sciences, Faculty of Forestry 

In response to these concerns, SXFN has collaborated with researchers from UBC’s Tree Ring Lab in the Faculty of Forestry to initiate two projects. The primary objective of the first project is to assess and model the wildfire risk in proximity to SXFN’s populated areas. They also aim to determine how that risk could be reduced through implementing eco-cultural restoration treatments that reduce small-medium tree densities and the quantity of dead woody material on the ground. These areas are situated in a semi-remote section of the Cariboo region in British Columbia, located approximately 85 kilometers southwest of Williams Lake and 58 kilometers northwest of Clinton.

The second project focuses on characterizing historical fire patterns, including where fires burned, what severity they burned at, and how frequently they burned. It is expected that this project will reveal that fires used to burn frequently, primarily at low severities, and this would support SXFN Oral Histories about their ancestors’ use of fire stewardship.

See below for project details and a Q&A with project co-lead Georgina Preston. 

Project Details 

Project Title: Historical Wildfire Regime and Contemporary Wildfire Risk in Stswecem’c Xget’tem Territory 

Project co-leads:  

Duration: January 2021 to April 2023 

Learn more 

This partnership was supported by the Partnership Recognition and Exploration (PRE) Fund. 

Q&A with Forestry student Georgina Preston 

Why is this project important and how is it supporting SXFN goals? 

This project is providing co-generated science on SXFN forests and fire risk to SXFN for use in land stewardship. Combining western science with SXFN’s place-based multigenerational knowledge is a way for SXFN to “walk on two legs” in stewarding their lands for eco-cultural restoration, climate change adaptation, and community-threatening wildfire risk mitigation.

The results from this research can be used to understand current risk under a variety of weather conditions. SXFN can leverage this information to advocate to the BC government for SXFN sovereignty recognition in land stewardship decisions. This project could only be a success if the results made it back to the SXFN community members, formatted in accessible language and presentation style, for comments and other feedback. The Partnership Recognition and Exploration Fund has provided a small amount of funding that has helped with knowledge mobilization from UBC to SXFN and vice versa.

What strengths did each party bring to the project? 

The People of SXFN have vital place-based knowledge that made this project a success and SXFN’s leadership contributed to community members’ enthusiasm to engage with the research project and findings. SXFN permitted UBC partners to work within the Territory and invited them into their community spaces to continue to build strong relationships together.

The UBC partner contributed resources to complete field data collection and hired graduate students with expertise in historical wildfire regimes, fuels, and fire mitigation. Additionally, graduate students had time to apply for funding on behalf of both partners.

During the project, what opportunities did participants have to teach, learn, or do research? 

We have been lucky to get together many times on the land, virtually, or most recently, at a large (52 person!) community engagement dinner, where UBC shared their research results, engaged in dialogue with SXFN community members, and ran Wildfire Preparedness Bingo with prizes donated by FireSmart BC.

During land tours, SXFN community members learned how researchers collect field data from their Territory and in 2022, a SXFN youth was hired to join UBC field crews. In both instances, UBC researchers were lucky to learn more about the cultural landscapes on which they work from SXFN citizens, while SXFN citizens learned more about the western science lens of knowledge surrounding dry forests and fire regimes. Not surprisingly, these diverse ways of understanding the land both complimented and opposed one another at times.

During the community engagement dinner, SXFN community members got to see fire scar samples and learn about how scars form and what they could mean in terms of SXFN’s own fire stewardship history. The dinner was a big relationship builder, where we gathered with one another to enjoy a big meal (paid in part by the grant funding), and learned more about the past, present, and future of wildfire in SXFN Territory.

There was much cross-cultural learning between UBC white settler graduate students and SXFN community members.

What was your favourite outcome or experience from the project? 

The community engagement dinner was incredibly fun and everyone was grateful for the $1,500 from the PRE Fund that paid for part of the meal. People were very engaged with the research and willing to provide feedback. The food was delicious and wildfire bingo was delightful chaos, with many laughs from everyone involved. Also, getting out on the land with one another is so special. Being together in place can promote so much more conversation than a PowerPoint or written report ever could.

There is a huge willingness in this community to mobilize SXFN-led land stewardship practices to better prepare for wildfire, especially given the exceptional risk that surrounds the remote SXFN communities. We all hope that this research is able to contribute to on-the-ground implementation.

Can you share a few lessons you learned during your project? 

  1. People show up to events if there’s Bingo involved.
  2. Low severity surface fires were historically highly prevalent in the interior Douglas-fir forests of SXFN Territory, which is no surprise considering SXFN Oral History tells of extensive Indigenous Fire Stewardship prior to settler-colonial oppression.
  3. The catastrophic fires that Indigenous Knowledge Holders, and more recently western scientists, warned us about are here now. 2023 is the fourth record-breaking BC wildfire season in 7 years. Rural, remote Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities often face more barriers in implementing wildfire mitigation and this is a serious social and environmental justice issue.

What is next for this project? 

We are wrapping up research on contemporary wildfire risk. There will be a community report published, with artwork commissioned from an SXFN artist. The report will be presented at upcoming engagement meetings.

A land tour is being planned for October 2023. The historical wildfire regime portion of the project will continue into 2025 and will have several more engagements with SXFN on their Territory.

We are always looking for more funding to enable this work, as there are few places you can get funding to work collaboratively with community partners or bring the research results back to those communities. This is a vital piece of ethical community-based research, and it is severely underfunded.