How Wildfires Affect Indigenous Communities

Wildfires and indigenous communities

Indigenous communities have a long history of using fire as a tool for land management. This includes promoting ecosystem health, maintaining biodiversity, and reducing the risks of large-scale wildfires.

These traditional practices involve controlled burns to remove excess fuel, stimulate plant growth, and regenerate landscapes. Yet today, Indigenous communities are more vulnerable to wildfires which significantly impact their air quality.

And this is a serious threat to public health.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, this year has officially seen Canada's worst fire season on record. As of June 2023, more than 8 million hectares have burned so far. Worse yet, over 21,000 people from 45 Indigenous communities have been forced from their homes, according to Indigenous Services Canada. 

Why Are Indigenous Communities More Vulnerable to Wildfires?  

Indigenous communities are vulnerable to wildfires due to various factors. For example, their geographic location often places them in fire-prone regions. They also have limited resources and infrastructure, hindering their ability to respond effectively to wildfires. 

Some other reasons include: 

  • Disruption of traditional land management practices. This is caused by colonization and restrictive policies, as well as increased fuel loads and wildfire severity.  
  • Cultural and linguistic barriers. This slows down communication with emergency management agencies, leading to delays and difficulty accessing assistance.  
  • Severe weather events. Indigenous communities also face disproportionate natural events, such as droughts and extreme weather events. This creates favorable conditions for wildfires.  

How Wildfires Affect Indigenous Communities 

Indigenous communities are significantly affected by wildfires in several ways. Here is a quick list of them which we will explore in depth: 

  • Loss of Life and Property 
  • Disruption of Traditional Practices and Cultural Heritage 
  • Long-term Health and Well-being 
  • Disruption of Livelihoods and Food Security 
  • The Psychological and Emotional Toll 
  • Environmental Consequences

Loss of Life and Property 

    Wildfires can pose immediate risks to the lives and safety of individuals. They can destroy homes, infrastructure, and cultural sites—leading to displacement and loss of personal belongings, livelihoods, and community assets. The loss of life and property can have long-lasting impacts on the affected communities. 

    Disruption of Traditional Practices and Cultural Heritage 

    Indigenous communities often have deep connections to their lands and rely on them for cultural, spiritual, and subsistence practices. Wildfires disrupt these practices by damaging or destroying important cultural and ceremonial sites, traditional gathering areas, medicinal plants, and hunting and fishing grounds.  

    These losses have profound cultural and psychological impacts on Indigenous communities. 

    Long-term Health and Well-being 

    The smoke and air pollutants from wildfires can cause or exacerbate respiratory problems, cardiovascular issues, and other health conditions. Indigenous communities, particularly those with limited access to healthcare, may face challenges in dealing with these health impacts for years after. 

    Disruption of Livelihoods and Food Security 

    Many Indigenous communities rely on natural resources. On their land, this includes hunting, fishing, gathering, and traditional agriculture. Wildfires can destroy or degrade these resources. That can then lead to loss of income, food insecurity, and increased reliance on external sources. 

    The Psychological and Emotional Toll 

    Displacement, loss of homes and possessions, and disruption of cultural and spiritual practices can lead to increased stress, trauma, and grief. These impacts are compounded by historical trauma and the ongoing challenges faced by Indigenous communities. 

    Environmental Consequences 

    Wildfires can cause significant ecological damage, including loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitats, and soil erosion. These impacts can have long-term consequences for the ecosystems that Indigenous communities rely upon and the traditional ecological knowledge that informs their relationship with the land. 

    It's important to recognize the effects of wildfires on Indigenous communities are often interconnected with historical injustices, ongoing marginalization, and systemic inequalities.  

    Effective support and recovery efforts should prioritize the involvement of Indigenous communities in decision-making processes. They should also respect their self-determination, cultural practices, and traditional knowledge in rebuilding and resiliency efforts.

    How We Can Help Indigenous Communities  

    Supporting Indigenous communities during wildfires involves a multi-faceted approach. One that prioritizes collaboration, respect for Indigenous knowledge and sovereignty, and addressing underlying systemic issues.

    Here are some ways we can all help support Indigenous communities and protect them from wildfires. 

    #1 - Air Quality Monitoring 

    Air quality monitors assist Indigenous communities during wildfires by providing real-time information about air quality. They enable early warnings, aiding in evacuation efforts and protecting community health. Emergency response agencies can allocate resources effectively based on air quality data.  

    The information empowers communities to advocate for policy changes and participate in decision-making. Long-term wildfire monitoring also helps with planning and mitigation strategies. 

    #2 - Collaboration and Engagement 

    First, we should foster meaningful partnerships and engage in open dialogue with Indigenous communities. Respect their autonomy and involve them in all emergency preparedness, response, and recovery stages. 

    We need to ensure their voices are heard and their needs are understood and incorporated into decision-making processes. Beyond that, we should support organizations run by First Nations groups fighting for air quality. 

    #3 - Resources and Infrastructure 

    To enhance their firefighting capabilities and emergency response systems, we need to provide adequate resources and infrastructure to Indigenous communities. This can include training and equipping local community members with firefighting skills, providing firefighting equipment, and establishing better emergency communication systems. 

    #4 - Traditional Land Management Practices 

    Additionally, we should recognize and support Indigenous land management practices, including controlled burns and other traditional ecological methods. By collaborating with Indigenous communities to restore and revive these practices, we can help reduce fuel loads, restore ecosystem health, and mitigate the risks of severe wildfires. 

    #5 - Evacuation Planning and Support 

    Develop evacuation plans that consider the unique needs and circumstances of Indigenous communities. This includes providing accessible transportation options and culturally appropriate shelters. Additionally, it's important to ensure that wildfire evacuation centers are inclusive and respectful of Indigenous cultural practices. 

    #6 - Post-wildfire Recovery and Resilience 

    Next, after wildfires, we should help Indigenous communities in long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts. Support the restoration of cultural sites, traditional resources, and livelihoods impacted by wildfires. Provide resources for mental health support, trauma-informed care, and community healing initiatives. 

    #7 - Address Underlying Issues 

    Finally, we need to recognize and address the underlying issues contributing to vulnerability in Indigenous communities, such as socioeconomic disparities, historical injustices, and changes in our environment. Work towards equitable solutions by supporting Indigenous-led initiatives, promoting land rights and self-determination, and advocating for policy changes.

    It's crucial to approach these actions with humility, respect, and a willingness to learn. Collaborative efforts that value Indigenous knowledge, traditions, and self-determination are essential. Then we can ensure effective support during wildfires and foster long-term resilience. 

    Worried About Air Quality?  

    Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home. Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.