What is Settler and State-Led Fire Management?

Settler fire management is when settlers (non-Indigenous Peoples) such as private land owners use fire.

State-led fire management is a set of fire management practices led by provincial/territorial and federal agencies with the aims to manage both people and resources for the purposes and goals identified by the state.

Settler and state-led fire management includes

  • wildfire prevention: preventing unwanted human-caused wildfires;
  • wildfire response: putting out fires to protect lives, communities and high-value infrastructure on the land; and
  • wildfire recovery: restoring and renewing damaged, disturbed or destroyed communities, ecosystems and habitats.

In Canada, wildfire agencies commit most of their human, technical, financial and time resources to wildfire suppression activities.

Settler and state-led fire management consider multiple resource management values where

  • residential areas and high-value commercial forests and recreational sites are deemed high priority, while
  • wilderness parks and remote forests of limited economic value are considered low priority.

At times, there can be value conflicts and points of tension between settler and state-led fire management and Indigenous cultural values, for example, in the protection of rare habitats and culturally significant areas. Conflict arises particularly if and when Indigenous cultural values are not prioritized by decision-makers.

For more information about points of tension between settler and state-led fire management and Indigenous cultural values, check out Alex Zahara’s (Muskrats to Moose Project Team Advisor) 2020 article, Breathing fire into landscapes that burn: Wildfire management in a time of alterlife.

Reflection questions

With roots in Indigenous-led fire practicessettler and state-led fire management are distinct from yet complementary to Indigenous-led fire practices as they also involve the use of fire, for example prescribed burning, but involve multiple resource management values with a priority placed on economic values, for example, protection of human life and communities, ecosystem stewardshiphabitat restoration, fuel reduction, economic values.

Prescribed burning or fire is agency-driven with its main objectives focused on reducing and managing forest fuels; maintaining a certain forest state; improving the health of native grassland and regenerating decadent aspen stands in parks; maintaining grazing meadows for elk and deer; supporting fuel management; and reducing wildfire risks. Prescribed burning is the knowledgeable application and practice of lighting fires to a specific unit of land to meet predetermined management objectives. These fires are managed to minimize the emission of smoke and maximize the benefits to the site. 

Prescribed burning often has different objectives from Indigenous-led fire practices which involve multiple resource management values. For example, Indigenous-led fire practices might be used to clear brush away and get rid of pests while protecting homes from wildfires. Prescribed burning is often applied with greater intensity, occurs during different times and is set up differently in the planning process from Indigenous-led fire practices.

Recently, cultural values have been shifting within and across provincial/territorial and federal fire management authorities. There is much diversity among provincial/territorial and federal governments and authorities within those governments in terms of values and practices with respect to settler and state-led fire management. This diversity often results from the way land values that are to be protected are distributed differently from each provincial/territorial and federal jurisdiction and the different weights government agencies assign to those values.

Furthermore, as settler and state-led fire management policies are in transition today, provincial/territorial and federal agencies do not always speak with one voice about the role of fire on the land. In this policy context, settler and state-led fire management are not only exploring how to braid Indigenous Science and Western Science, they are also exploring how to braid conflicting values and priorities within settler and state-led fire management.