For decades, each spring Syilx elder Dora Alexis has been conducting planned burns to clear out debris and prevent raging wildfires on her family’s property.
“That is what my dad preached to us a long long time ago: prescribed burning. He said, ‘That’s what the old-timers always did was the little burns that protected your properties, your place, whatever you had.’ He swore by it,” Alexis said.
This summer when the White Rock Lake Wildfire burned into the Okanagan Indian Band’s main reserve, Alexis and all the other residents were forced to evacuate.
However, the elder wasn’t too worried about her family’s property.
“We were quite sure that not too much damage would be done on our properties here because we did the necessary back burning,” Alexis said.
The forested hilltops near their homes were scorched black by the fire and other band members lost their homes but the family’s homes survived the fire.
Alexis and Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis say Alexis’ planned burns helped protect her area from the massive wildfire.
“Where she’s been doing her burns that fire just ran really hot underneath the tree stems but it didn’t really affect the vegetation. You still see green trees…right next door where it is natural regeneration has just been burnt,” Louis said.
The Okanagan Indian Band is looking at expanding its use of prescribed burns, something the band had been working on for years even before it was threatened by the White Rock Lake fire.
“We have a long history amongst our people of using prescribed burns for management of the lands,” said Louis.
Louis said in the early 1900s Indigenous people were actually arrested for conducting traditional burns in the North Okanagan.
Now the chief is an advocate for managing the forest to manage fires and would like to see the prescribed burns done on an annual cycle in accordance with traditional practices.
“I think there needs to be an understanding that we do have something to offer as Okanagan People or as Syilx people. We have thousands of years of knowledge that is based upon this ecology. We were here. We’ve been always here,” said Louis.
Meanwhile, Alexis and her family plan to continue with their prescribed burns and will be happy to see others pick up the traditional practice.