As millions of acres burn in the Arctic, creating a common language around wildfire management is key

07 September 2020
Record-setting wildfire seasons are becoming a new normal in the Arctic. While uncontrolled wildfires are devastating, could fire also be a tool for biodiversity and mitigating climate change? Gwich’in Council International (GCI) is tackling wildfire challenges and fostering new opportunities through Arctic Council projects focused on circumpolar collaboration.

Edward Alexander and Devlin Fernandes represent Gwich’in Council International in the Circumpolar Wildland Fire project with the Council’s Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group and the Arctic FIRE project with the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group.

We spoke with Edward and Devlin about the impact of wildfires in the Arctic, the importance of bringing Indigenous knowledge into management practices, how the coronavirus pandemic impacts this wildfire season and how circumpolar collaboration and knowledge sharing are essential.

What is the 2020 wildfire season looking like in the Arctic so far?

Edward Alexander: In Alaska there has been record-setting rain in the interior, and so the fire season here is one of the smallest Alaska has seen for the last 30 to 40 years. Alternatively, Russia has had a major wildfire season this year. There has been a heat dome over Siberia for long periods of time. While we have not had the fire season this year in Alaska, we do have smoke from Siberia coming over to Northern and interior Alaska. Irregular seasons like this is something you can expect with climate change.

Devlin Fernandes: Similarly in Canada, the 2020 wildfire season was much less severe than anticipated.

How are Gwich’in communities impacted by wildfires?

Edward Alexander: Over the last 20 years, we have seen fires burn close to communities causing huge amounts of smoke and evacuations at times. There are associated health risks with the smoke.

We have had a lot of acreage burn near our communities that are important for a variety of species that we depend on like moose, caribou and small game. Over the last several years wildfires are starting to spread to other areas of the North such as Canada and Siberia in a similar devastating fashion. This is something that will continue to trend upwards. And we need to understand it a lot more than we currently do.

Devlin Fernandes: In addition to the health risks and food insecurity caused by wildfires, there are impacts on people’s ability to engage in cultural practices and medicine harvesting, impacts on traplines and transportation routes and impacts on feelings of security and anxiety when you witness or experience fires in prolonged ways.

"Collaboration is essential because wildfires do not respect national or sub-national boundaries. Being able to share knowledge, resources and crews and being able to have training standards that are supported across jurisdictions is really important."Devlin Fernandes, Executive Director, GCI

The Circumpolar Wildland Fire project aims to share knowledge and resources across Arctic States. How important is circumpolar collaboration to fighting wildland fires?

Devlin Fernandes: Collaboration is essential because wildfires do not respect national or sub-national boundaries. Being able to share knowledge, resources and crews and being able to have training standards that are supported across jurisdictions is really important. There are Gwich’in firefighting crews that are fantastic and have developed great skills for firefighting in the Arctic. This EPPR project looks at how those crews can be deployed to other Arctic wildfires and bring those skills to bear.

Edward Alexander: It is important to make sure that the fire and smoke are not the only things crossing national borders. Our knowledge, cooperation, resources, respect for each other and our commitment to mutual aid should also be trans-boundary.

Gwich’in firefighting crews are in California right now helping fight wildfires in the South. Having a common language around wildland fire management that we can all speak and work with is significant.

"It is not enough to talk about management regimes without talking about Indigenous management and techniques that have been successful in the North for thousands of years."Edward Alexander, Co-Chair, GCI

How can Indigenous knowledge be brought into wildland fire management?

Edward Alexander: Part of EPPR’s Circumpolar Wildland Fire project is to learn how other Indigenous Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council have managed fires and taken steps to suppress fires in a way that is useful for them as a people.

One example is that Gwich’in burn grass during early springtime in the North, when the meadows have thawed but there is still snow around the timber line. This was traditionally important because it increased the biodiversity of plant species growing in that area, fertilized the soil so that plants were more nutritious and increased the land’s carrying capacity of animals. There would be an increase in rabbits, and moose would have two or three calves instead of just one. It is also a carbon-neutral practice to burn the land during that specific time due to the low amount of carbohydrates on the soil. It is important to understand that if that same fire was lit just a month later, it could be extraordinarily destructive and destroy the rich structures of those plants, interfere with migrating animals and more.

It is important to gather information like this to understand how people have worked with fire in the past to better manage what we have going forward. It is not enough to talk about management regimes without talking about Indigenous management and techniques that have been successful in the North for thousands of years.

Devlin Fernandes: In the last few decades, fire has often been thought of as a negative event and something we want to avoid at all costs. By bringing Indigenous knowledge into the conversation and into management practices, we can actually share the knowledge that fire can be a tool for biodiversity and addressing climate change. An exciting piece of the EPPR project is that collaboration is not simply to suppress fire, but to strategically think about fires and our management going forward.

"In the last few decades, fire has often been thought of as a negative event and something we want to avoid at all costs. By bringing Indigenous knowledge into the conversation and into management practices, we can actually share the knowledge that fire can be a tool for biodiversity and addressing climate change."Devlin Fernandes, Executive Director, GCI

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect fire response and communities impacted by wildfires?

Edward Alexander: In California, almost half of their firefighting resources are not available, and Gwich’in crews are there now to assist. This shows the need for crews in our villages to be adequately resourced to work across different areas.

There has also been concern because firefighting crews work and camp in close quarters, and there could be up to five thousand people living in a firefighting town. We do not have an exact idea of how this will play out during a pandemic yet.

Devlin Fernandes: There could be risks of increased smoke from wildfires impacting lungs and breathing capacity. One concern is how fires and smoke, which exacerbate public health issues, impact and intersect with Covid-19. We do not know the answers yet.

The pandemic border crossing restrictions also have an impact on communities. For example, if Gwich’in from a village in Alaska are impacted by a wildfire and want to stay with family in a Gwich’in community in Canada or vice versa, border restrictions are for the most part still in place.

The EPPR Circumpolar Wildland project was approved in early 2020. How has the project progressed so far?

Devlin Fernandes: We are currently looking at what agreements, memorandum of understandings and policies exist that enable cooperation and collaboration in terms of wildfire response and training. We will also interview users, designers and policy makers for best practices, recommendations for change and more.

While an official agreement is not an expected outcome of this project, one of our goals is to move towards an agreement around wildfires that in the future would see the ability for more mobilization across borders and address things like compensation, training, structural Incident Command Systems and more.

We have seen a great level of interest in this project from Arctic States, Arctic Council Permanent Participants and Observers. There has been a real diversity of expertise and interest coming together, showing a strong need and desire to advance this work.

"The more people think about the impacts of wildland fire on northern terrain, the better off we all will be as a global society dealing with climate change."Edward Alexander, Co-Chair, GCI

GCI has another wildland fire project with CAFF called Arctic Wildland Fire Ecology Mapping and Monitoring (Arctic FIRE). What is the importance of that project and what are your main goals?

Devlin Fernandes: The objective of Arctic FIRE is to understand the extent and impacts of wildfires and the best practices for wildfire management from science and Indigenous knowledge perspectives. We are mapping the extent and distribution of fires across the Arctic and reviewing practices from how different jurisdictions manage fires. Along with a map, the project will deliver guidelines and best practices for Arctic fire ecology and forest management.

Edward Alexander: The more people think about the impacts of wildland fire on northern terrain, the better off we all will be as a global society dealing with climate change. Wildland fire in the North is different than in the South. Right now, there are fires burning in California that are a tragedy and will result in large amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere. But if that same fire were to be in the North, like the fires currently burning in Siberia, the vegetation burns off and exposes the permafrost below. That results in more carbon release that continues not just during the duration of the fire, or the summer season, but for multiple years.

However, we do not have all the information of what exactly is happening and its impacts. And we need to know, because we are not talking about one acre or even 100,000 acres. We are talking about tens of millions of acres annually that this is happening to. In Alaska there are some fire seasons where four or five million acres are burned, and in Siberia it is a staggering 30 million acres. Right now, we do not have good answers to the important questions around the damage to those habitats and the release of all that carbon, and the impacts years after the fires. We need to have a better understanding, and the support of the Arctic States, Permanent Participants and Observers is very important. GCI is grateful that we are not alone in looking for these answers and that we have solid partnerships through this project to do that.

About Edward Alexander

Edward Alexander is Co-Chair of Gwich’in Council International and Head of Delegation to the Arctic Council Working Groups Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response. He has served in a variety of leadership roles over the past 20 years, including as the 2nd Chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in. He loves to be on the land in Gwich’in country, fishing, hunting and exploring cultural sites.

Edward has a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education and fought wildland fire for eight seasons to put himself through university. He worked as a secondary teacher, principal, in administration and at the University of Alaska Fairbanks managing the Yukon Flats Campus. He currently serves as the Education Director for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which works for 37 Federally Recognized Tribes. He serves on many boards and committees primarily focused on issues of Gwich’in language revitalization, education and social and environmental justice.

About Devlin Fernandes

Devlin Fernandes is Executive Director of Gwich’in Council International and works to amplify the voice of the Gwich’in Nation on issues of sustainable development and the environment. She provides leadership to projects in the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group, Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response with a focus on renewable energy, wildfires and health and wellbeing. She has a Master’s Degree in Forest Conservation and brings over two decades in leadership and community-based work, designing, piloting and implementing initiatives advancing better social, economic and ecological outcomes. She believes in collaboration and partnerships, and brings strategic, operational and administrative capacities to problems and solutions.