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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Fire in a dynamic social-ecological system : legacies and future of fire in British Columbia, Canada Copes-Gerbitz, Kelsey Mahealani


Fire, people, and landscapes have dynamically coexisted through time in fire-dependent social-ecological systems, supported by diverse Indigenous stewardship. Today, however, fire is increasingly threatening peoples’ lives and livelihoods. This growing threat is partly attributed to an inadequate fire governance model that prioritizes fire control and fails to recognize the complexity of fire-dependent social-ecological systems across scales. In this dissertation, I take a collaborative and case study approach to explore these complex relationships in British Columbia (BC), Canada, at provincial and local scales over the last five centuries. By combining multiple methodologies, including historical document analysis, semi-structured expert interviews, place-based group interviews (forest walks), and tree-ring records, my dissertation demonstrates that the dominant fire governance model has cascading consequences for social and ecological systems through time. At the provincial scale, Indigenous stewardship was replaced by command-and-control fire governance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was enforced by centralized government actors who continue to retain decision-making power over fire in BC. At the local scale, in a dry, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menzeisii) dominated forest in the central interior of BC, the disruption of Indigenous stewardship in the 1870s altered the historical mixed-severity fire regime by eliminating highly frequent fire and landscape-level pyrodiversity. As a result, the dry forest today is more dense and likely to burn at uncharacteristic high severity, threatening enduring Indigenous values and livelihoods of adjacent communities. The 2017 fire season in BC was one such uncharacteristic season, which broke records for area burned (1.2 million hectares), number of people evacuated (~65,000), and fire suppression costs (~CAD$600 million) and prompted calls for a new paradigm of fire governance that includes Indigenous (and local) communities. To do so, however, this research demonstrates that Indigenous knowledge is uniquely situated within a place-based context, and it is imperative that decision-making power is redistributed to Indigenous peoples to ensure that context is respected. Ultimately, transformative change is needed to shift to a more equitable fire governance model that prioritizes proactive, Indigenous stewardship and ensures that resilience in a fire-dependent social-ecological system is defined and led by Indigenous peoples.

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