Elephant Hill Fire

After the fire: the long road to recovery

A B.C. Indigenous group has been working to bring its territory back to life and create a replicable model for restoration following the devastating 2017 Elephant Hill fire. But it can take a century for forests to recover and climate change adds to the timeline

Bright-green plants sprout against a black backdrop of burned trees in some areas devastated by the 2017 Elephant Hill fire in B.C.’s interior. In other spots, the forest floor remains ashy with no signs of new life. It’s a visual reminder of both the hope and challenges that lie ahead for those working to restore the fragile ecosystem.

“It reminds me of a moonscape,” Angie Kane, CEO of the Secwepemcùl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society, said of the areas with no new growth.

“You’ve got this dirty black ground cover and all these little black sticks sticking up all over the place. And there’s nothing there.”

In summer 2017, the fire burned almost 192,000 hectares over 76 days an area 15 times the size of Vancouver — and destroyed 100 homes. It was one of the biggest wildfires in a record-breaking season. But megafires — fires that burn more than 40,500 hectares — are becoming more common in B.C. and around the world due to climate change.

Last year began with wildfires raging in Australia, burning over 17 million hectares almost the size of Washington state. Summer ended with the spread of intense California fires that destroyed about 10,000 buildings. Smoke from fires in California, Oregon and Washington blanketed British Columbia. The images are harrowing and yet they are also becoming uncomfortably familiar.

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It can take decades for ecosystems to recover from the destruction. 

When the Elephant Hill fire was finally out in the fall of 2017, eight Secwépemc bands, nearby communities and the province formed the Elephant Hill Joint Leadership Council to restore damaged areas in Secwepemcul’ecw, which means Secwépemc territory (find a pronunciation guide here). The council created and executed a three-year restoration plan in the area that is near completion. 

Rachael Pollard, acting manager of sustainable resource management with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Development, said the joint leadership council was a unique enterprise. She was a district manager for the ministry at the time of the fire and was a member of the council.  

“The communities had a role in deciding what the wildfire recovery would look like, and I think that was something that hadn’t really been done before,” she said. “They also could participate in the post-wildfire-recovery activities themselves.”

“We just tried to work together in the principles of a government-to-government relationship.” 

Pollard said a similar joint leadership council was created to manage the aftermath of the 2019 Big Bar landslide, which also happened in Secwépemc territory along the Fraser River.

blackened trees in a forest

Blackened trees stand like twigs in the Bonaparte River watershed in B.C.’s interior more than three years after the Elephant Hill fire. New growth on the forest floor indicates promise for the future, but only if forests are rebuilt with climate change in mind, says Kukpi7 Ron Ignace, a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band. Photo: Josh Batson

In 2019, the eight First Nations founded the Secwepemcùl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society to carry on the work of the council. The society wants to advance sustainable management of lands and lead landscape adaptation to climate change.

Kane said the restoration society is the first of its kind and is unique in its positive relationship with the province, which began with the joint leadership council.

“Our biggest achievement has been the working relationship that we established with the province,” Kane said. “Because of our success and our ability to maintain and continue to grow our relationship, the province is looking to use our model in other areas of the province.”

Kukpi7 Ron Ignace of Skeetchestn Indian Band, who represents his people within the restoration society, wants to restore the damaged forest by building resilience in the face of climate change, which involves preserving water, protecting streams and fish habitat, planting diverse seeds and taking a leading role in management.

group of people stand around picnic table in forest

Members of the Secwepemcùl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society attend a training session on water quality monitoring devices. Photo: Josh Batson

Ignace said the province has prioritized the economic value of timber over the health of forests and reinstating First Nations as forest managers is the only way to mitigate future megafires.

“We want to take control of the forest and manage it,” Ignace said. “As far as I’m concerned, the [Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development] has lost the moral authority to manage the forests on their own. They need our help. We need to engage with them in the rebuilding of our forests in Secwépemc country.”

Kane said the restoration society has received $4 million to date in funding from the provincial government and Red Cross and through contract work for regional districts, and has spent $2.5 million. 

Recovery of forest could take a century due to climate change

The Elephant Hill fire burned about a third of the Bonaparte River watershed, destroying the valuable forest understory that provided food and medicine plants to Secwépemc nations and wildlife. Organic matter in the soil that took thousands of years to develop was destroyed.

When fires burn as hot as the Elephant Hill fire did, the surface of the soil goes hard and “glassy,” Kane explained. This allows water to run across the surface without being absorbed, which can cause flooding. The fire-damaged landscape has caused multiple floods in Cache Creek over the past three years. The community said the runoff was especially intense this summer.

In partnership with Forest Foods, which works with Indigenous communities to manage and develop understory resources, and Brinkman & Associates Reforestation, the restoration society has undertaken environmental monitoring and collected diverse seeds to plant new trees in the once-bountiful area. 

satellite image showing green landscape

This before image taken on July 5, 2017, shows the area near Ashcroft, B.C., before the Elephant Hill fire. Photo: Joshua Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory

satellite image showing brown burn scar on green landscape

This after image shows the damage caused by Elephant Hill fire. It was taken on August 22, 2017 and captured the burn scar on the landscape. Photo: Joshua Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory

The partners received $2.6 million from the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund in 2019 to restore riparian areas through the Elephant Hill fire area in order to keep streams healthy and cool so they can continue to support salmon and steelhead. Last year, they did field surveys and mapped damaged areas, and this year they will be installing water monitoring equipment. Eventually, they will plant 250,000 trees in areas unlikely to regenerate on their own.

The funding lasts until 2024, but the work will take a lifetime, said Shelby Leslie, CEO of Forest Foods.

“What we are doing is aimed at helping 60 to 100 years into the future,” he said. “The forest will take that long to fully recover.”

Regenerating forests is becoming more difficult due to climate change. Research has found climate change is causing unfavourable growing conditions for seeds, making it more likely for new growth to fail

Forests are also at their lowest resilience following a disturbance, and the Elephant Hill area was already recovering from the mountain pine beetle epidemic and subsequent salvage logging. Climate change can amplify disturbances, leading to even slower recovery. 

Restoration society seeks to re-establish ‘pre-colonial’ forests

The Elephant Hill fire burned so hot in certain areas that seeds in the soil were turned to ashes. The restoration society is still trying to collect seeds from the land and purchase seeds and cuttings and to replenish the watershed. A lot of thought and time has gone into selecting the right seeds. 

Leslie said they want deciduous trees, which are less desirable for logging but important to the ecosystem because they are more fire-resistant than conifers. Beavers also rely on deciduous trees, and the restoration society wants to support the animals because their ponds help keep the forest wet and mitigate flooding.

new grass in burned forest

New grass grows among burned trees in the Bonaparte River watershed. Photo: Tim Hawkins

cabin on a lake

Areas near the Bonaparte River have flooded repeatedly since the Elephant Hill fire. The river flooded this farmland just north of Clinton, B.C., in July 2020. Photo: Tim Hawkins

But Leslie said large-scale nurseries favour conifer seedlings for industrial timber plantations, while the industry for non-timber and deciduous species is much smaller.

“In an ideal world, we would put back birch and put back cottonwood and put back aspen,” he said. “The sad reality is the industrial forestry complex is so deeply entrenched within B.C. that you really can’t get those seeds. The infrastructure for collecting, processing and growing deciduous species needs significant investment.” 

Leslie said industrial companies focus on replanting commercially viable trees, creating dense and homogenous stands that are highly susceptible to disease and pests like the mountain pine beetle.

In Leslie’s opinion, “B.C. has been planting timber farms on an industrial scale, not forests.” 

The partners have been buying some deciduous seeds from Alkali Resource Management, an Esk’etemc company, and Roserim Nursery, which is owned by the Tsq’escenemc (both communities are part of the Secwépemc Nation).

We’re looking at forests as living infrastructure.”

Leslie said the partners want to build a “replicable model” of forest restoration that other First Nations can follow after fires in their territories. Using money from the salmon restoration fund, the partners can do trial runs and learn from experience. For example, they are experimenting with planting seeds rather than saplings so they have lighter loads to carry into more difficult-to-reach areas.

“What we’re really trying to do is take a look at how we can develop the capacity within communities to go out, collect seed from various different sources and various different plants, and to be able to truly reinstall that biodiversity,” he said.

The society is striving to restore the forest in a “pre-colonial fashion,” Kane said.

“It’s about looking at the forest in a different way, looking for ecological and economic opportunity outside of timber,” she said. 

Preserving diversity among trees, rather than building a homogenous landscape, will make the area more resilient to fires in the future, Ignace said.

“We’re looking at forests as living infrastructure,” he said. “We want to rebuild and protect that living infrastructure in a biodiverse way as opposed to the plantation-style management of forests that exists today.”

Restoration an opportunity to ‘roll out UNDRIP on the land’

Morel mushrooms often bloom the spring following a forest fire, attracting commercial and recreational harvesters, which is exactly what happened on Secwépemc territory. In anticipation of hundreds of harvesters, the Elephant Hill Joint Leadership Council created a mushroom harvest program to protect the land and assert Secwépemc jurisdiction over the understory resources. 

The forest understory is not subject to many regulations under provincial law, but Secwémepc law still applies, said Ignace. Managing mushroom pickers was an opportunity to establish Indigenous jurisdiction in the forest, execute Secwépemc law and make sure the damaged forest wasn’t further harmed by the influx of people.

close up of morel mushrooms

In the spring following a forest fire, there is often an explosion of morel mushrooms. This bounty attracts commercial and recreational harvesters, who can further damage the land. Photo: Lobby Studio

hand holding morel mushrooms next to a bucket full of mushrooms

The Elephant Hill Joint Leadership Council’s management of mushroom harvesters allows the nations to maintain Indigenous jurisdiction in the forest. Photo: Lobby Studio

hand holding morel mushrooms next to a bucket full of mushrooms

A permitting system and forest patrol gave the nations control over their own resources when mushroom harvesters arrived after the fire. Photo: Lobby Studio

The council set up a permitting system and the restoration society established the Secwépemc Territorial Patrol to enforce those permits.

The patrol also set up outdoor toilets and collected garbage, diverting 53,000 litres of human waste and almost 15,000 pounds of garbage that would have been left behind by harvesters.

The society spent $675,000 on these initiatives. 

Though the morel harvest is over, the patrol continues to act as land guardians by monitoring the territory. Kane said the restoration society members hope to expand the team to include all 17 Secwépemc nations. 

For Ignace, successfully managing mushroom pickers was just one opportunity to “roll out UNDRIP on the land.” 

“If we look after the forest, the forest will look after us.”

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which became law in B.C. in November 2019, protects the rights of Indigenous Peoples and recognizes their own laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems.

All the work the patrol does is grounded in Secwépemc knowledge and laws and a fundamental Secwépemc law is to be caretakers of the land, Ignace said. Another law is to ensure reciprocal accountability. 

“If we look after the forest, the forest will look after us,” he explained. “Just like we give our breath to the trees, and the trees in turn give us their breath.”

“We look to the trees as if they were our mothers … and she cares for everything as it were under her wings.”

Cultural burning could have prevented the Elephant Hill fire

Fire doesn’t have to be viewed as an uncontrollable destroyer, Ignace said. Secwépemc First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples have been using fire for millenia. He and other leaders are pushing to bring back cultural burning to the territory.

Cultural burning involves carefully using fire to manage the land. For instance, Indigenous Peoples may use fire to safely burn dry “fuel” — such as fallen needles, branches and trees — in the spring and fall so intense wildfires don’t break out in the summer. Cultural burning also encourages new growth and supports food and medicinal plants. However, B.C. banned cultural burning in 1874, leading to a loss of knowledge about the craft.

Read more: The art of fire: reviving the Indigenous craft of cultural burning

“For the last 100 years or so, people look at fires as something that’s destructive,” Ignace said. “But fire and water are two sides of the same coin. Water can be equally destructive as fire, or both can be very constructive.”

It’s just a question of knowing how to use them.

Lori Daniels, a professor at the University of British Columbia in the department of forest and conservation sciences, said the dramatic decrease in cultural burning since the 1860s has led to more intense wildfires. 

In absence of these fires, trees have increased in abundance and burnable fuels accumulated.  Decades later, there is much more biomass and the fires are more severe,” she said.

By clearing the forest floor, fewer fires would get out of control, said Robert Seaton, chief administrative officer of Brinkman & Associates Reforestation. As summers become hotter and drier, clearing that fuel becomes more necessary.

“If Elephant Hill had been managed as it was by First Nations from times immemorial, we probably wouldn’t have had the Elephant Hill fire,” Seaton said.

He said the fire may have moved across the landscape, but it would have primarily been a grass fire, “which would have been much easier to put limits around and would not have been nearly as catastrophic.” 

Kukpi7 Ron Ignace standing outdoors looking off camera

Kukpi7 Ron Ignace says the forest has been disrespected and mismanaged, which has led to the great floods, rains and forest fires that are common today. “We feel it’s important to step in and begin demonstrating respect for the land.” Photo: Secwepemcùl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society

damaged trees in the Elephant Hill fire area

First Nations stewardship alongside provincial and federal governments can mitigate the risk of future megafires. Photo: Lobby Studio

To reduce the risk of future megafires in the region, Seaton said it’s essential for First Nations to act as co-managers alongside the provincial and federal governments, not only be consulted on decisions, which is something the society is working toward. 

“Consultation is not full management,” he said. “Co-management needs to become a real thing with real substance.”

But Seaton is optimistic things are changing, and future projects will get closer to true co-management. 

“We’re not there yet, but we’re heading in that direction,” he added.

Secwépemc knowledge of cultural burning is expansive. Ignace spent years doing burns in an area close to his home.  

“I noted that in the morning, the fire would blow one way, and then the afternoon, it would blow the other way. If you start a fire at a certain time in the morning and likewise in the afternoon, the two fires then come and put each other out,” he said. “I did that for 15 years and got rid of all the invasive species in the area, and the natural grass came back.”

Burning in the spring meant the forest floor was moist and the fires didn’t burn as deep, which kept seeds in the soil safe.

“It basically burns off the fuel and cleans the land and leaves behind ash, which is like a fertilizer, allowing for fresh regeneration of grasses and other seeds in the ground,” Ignace said.

“The way the forest has been improperly managed, it’s been disrespected. As such, it is now turning on us with great floods, rains and forest fires,” he continued. “We feel it’s important to step in and begin demonstrating respect for the land.”

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