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Meet The Métis Woman Using Fire To Fight Fire

Dr. Amy Cardinal Christianson, who studies cultural burning, is reclaiming what she calls “good fire.”
Meet The Métis Woman Using Fire To Fight Fire

(Photo: Amber Bracken)

Dr. Amy Cardinal Christianson grew up close to wildfires in Northern Alberta. While her family was always involved in firefighting efforts, before colonization, her ancestors “put fire on the ground” in early spring or late fall, when it was cool and damp—safe conditions for burning. Good fire, or “the kind of fire you can walk beside,” as one Elder recently described it to her, cleanses the earth of dead trees, branches and bushes and regenerates the growth of berries, medicinal plants and grass for moose and deer.

Cultural burning, which dates back thousands of years, prevents large-scale wildfires by removing “fuel loads,” a.k.a. the dead trees, dry grass and other materials that contribute to out-of-control wildfires. It was made illegal throughout Canadian provinces in the late 1800s and early 1900s by colonial authorities who believed that all fire on the landscape should be suppressed.

“Elders risked jail time for burning,” she says. “That’s how badly they knew that the land needed to burn.”

Christianson, a Métis woman from a Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta and an Indigenous fire specialist with Parks Canada, is working to support the reclaiming of the practice of cultural burning—low-intensity, good fire that’s rooted in Indigenous knowledge and used as a tool to manage forest and meadow ecosystems and prevent large-scale wildfires.

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Christianson has dedicated her academic studies and professional career to working with Indigenous communities, who are disproportionately impacted by the wildfire crisis in Canada. She is the co-author, alongside Tara K. McGee, of First Nations Wildfire Evacuations, an evacuation guide for Indigenous communities, and the co-host of the podcast Good Fire, which advocates for the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in wildfire management.

“Good fire is family- and nation-driven,” says Christianson. “It depends on local observations of the land and weather conditions. An Elder once told me that he knew when it was time to burn based on the plumpness of spruce needles on the tree.”

Climate change, coupled with a century of fire suppression and colonial practices (including the planting of monocrops of pine and spruce trees, species that are highly susceptible to burning), has led to the wildfire crisis today, and First Nations and Métis communities are bearing the worst of it. According to Christianson’s research, Indigenous communities—despite comprising less than 5 percent of the Canadian population—make up 42 percent of wildfire-related evacuees. Last summer, 6,500 wildfires burned a record-breaking 18.5 million hectares and displaced more than 200,000 Canadians.

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In May 2023, in her role with Parks Canada, Christianson was deployed as an Indigenous liaison to the front lines of one of those fires, the Paskwa Fire in Northern Alberta, so she could relay vital information about the fire’s activity. The fire destroyed over 100 homes and 200 structures in Fox Lake, one of three communities on the Little Red River Cree Nation.

But the losses to Indigenous communities, who rely on cultural activities such as hunting and gathering food and medicine, extend far beyond structural damage. Indigenous values are not always integrated into the way Western wildfire agencies manage fires, Christianson points out. Western agencies often prioritize saving structures over ceremonial grounds, burial sites or traplines.

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“When fire happens, especially if it’s a high-severity fire, it devastates the landscapes,” says Christianson. “Your house might still be standing, but at the same time, you’ve lost everything that connects you to the landscape—and it can take generations for forests to grow back.”

She wants to see more Indigenous people involved in higher-level decision-making in wildfire management. She’s advocating for a Fire Guardian program in Canada, which would employ Indigenous peoples year-round on their traditional territories to monitor and respond to wildfire in culturally relevant ways, including putting “good fire back on the land.”

“For me, the answer isn’t only investing in larger firefighting forces, because suppression perpetuates the problem we’re already seeing from the colonial regulation of fire,” Christianson says.

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“A Fire Guardian movement is about building a better relationship with fire, having fire on the ground when it’s safer and doing mitigation work around communities and [in] communities that directly benefit from it.”


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