Burnt trees in Alaska. Photo: iStock / A&J Photos
Burnt trees in Alaska. Photo: iStock / A&J Photos
The Arctic is experiencing its worst wildfire season on record, affecting the environment and communities in the circumpolar North and beyond.

Amongst the most affected are people in the Gwich’in territories in Alaska. They face a future of intensified wildfire seasons – and call upon the Arctic States to collaborate on both mitigation and emergency response measures. Edward Alexander is a member of the Gwich’in Council International (GCI), and in this interview he speaks about the impacts of wildfires and the projects GCI has submitted to Arctic Council Working Groups.

How have recent wildfires affected Gwich’in communities?

A large portion of Alaska is undergoing a seasonal draught right now, which has severely affected our Gwich’in communities. The drought has resulted in wide-spread wildland fires across Gwich’in territories with currently 57 active fires. Many of them are quite large, hundreds of thousands of acres, and some are quite close to our homes. Our communities of Chalkyitsik and Beaver for example have active fires that only are around one and two miles away respectively.

There also has been significant smoke affiliated with the fires. So, we experience terrible air quality in all our communities, affecting people’s health and quality of life. We have had some serious impacts on the forests surrounding communities as well, with animals being driven away by the flames.

Wildland fires are becoming an increasingly important issue for Gwich’in people as we see and experience the effects of global climate change and how it relates to growing wildland fires in our area.

GCI has submitted two wildfires related project proposals to Arctic Council Working Groups. Can you outline which aspects of wildfires these projects are targeted at?

We submitted our first wildland fire related proposal to the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group. It is called Arctic Fire and looks at fire ecology. In the past, there has been a lot of work on the effects of fire on fauna – not so much on flora. So, we wanted to re-center some of the work on issues that are important to Gwich’in people. Of course, animals are important to us, but so are ecosystems, the terrain, plants and the interaction between these. With the Arctic Fire project, we hope to make space for fire ecologists to report on their research. Also, it provides us with an avenue to create annual maps of areas that have been burnt across the circumpolar North.

Right now, States use different mechanisms to map fires. Thus, we often see those fires in the context of our own country and the average citizen might not be aware of fire activities in other Arctic States. Having a circumpolar view on the acreage burnt and updating a map of fire activities can provide us with viable information.

We presented a second wildland fire related proposal to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group in June. That proposal looks at current standing legal agreements between States and aims at cataloging and sharing resources across the circumpolar North. Our objective is to make it easier for communities to seek aid from other Arctic Council States. Sweden for example experienced large fires last year and needed aid. The government submitted a request for wildland firefighters to the European Union and to Turkey.

What we now call upon the Arctic Council to do is to find solution across the Arctic. Instead of looking South for answers to our problems, to look North, and East – West. The distance between Fairbanks, Alaska, and the areas that were burning in Sweden is shorter than the distance from those areas to Turkey. We have wide expertise across the circumpolar North in dealing with fires in Northern terrains and vegetations. Fighting wildland fires in the taiga and tundra is different than fighting fires in grassland and deserts. We therefore should share our expertise between the Arctic States, partnering together on training, cataloguing our resources, and making it easier to ask for assistance. So, the idea with the EPPR project is to evaluate the best way to move this kind of agreement forward. That is why that project is called Circumpolar Fire.

We are also considering a third proposal to the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), which concerns community planning for wildland fires. One of the issues we saw during the fire in the city of Paradise, California, in 2018, was the lack of an affective escape route and safety zone, which caused so many deaths in the community. Thus, we need to address the human side of the equation. There should be more guidance for communities to move beyond just emergency response. We need to be actively planning and preparing for the wildland fire future we are heading towards.

Which impact do you hope the projects will have – on your community and communities across the Arctic?

Sharing information about fire ecology, particularly Northern fire ecology, is going to be very interesting for Gwich’in people. It is important for us to have more resources devoted to understanding changing fire regimes and we need a better understanding of the impacts of climate change on our region, how communities and resources across the circumpolar North are going to be affected. It will also be useful for researchers to partner with colleagues from other Arctic States and to understand the research that is happening in other parts of the world. By sharing the latest information via an online annual Arctic Fire Monitoring journal, researchers will be able to get information out to both policy makers and communities.

The EPPR project in turn is going to be useful for wildland firefighters, enabling them to access new resources, as well as to learn from and train with other wildland firefighters from around the North. One component of the proposal is a biennial conference for wildland fire managers and ecologists, where people will gather to share reports, talk about responsibilities, and understand incident command practices.

One thing Gwich’in Council International would like to emphasize is that wildland fires are not just a Gwich’in issue, and it is not just an issue for the affected nation. Fires don’t respect territorial boundary lines. Fires that start in the US can migrate to Canada. Also, we need to understand how wildland fires in one part of the world may affect air quality in other part. For example, substantial fires in Alaska can cause haze in Canada.

Wildland fires are no longer just a symptom of global climate change. The amount of carbon wildland fires release into the atmosphere has a significant impact. It has become a driver of climate change in its own right. So, with the CAFF project we aim at coordinating our scientists, while with the EPPR project we hope to be able to coordinate our emergency response.

The project proposals indicated a co-production of knowledge. What can conventional fire management strategies and fire management strategies of indigenous peoples learn from each other?

Gwich’in traditionally use fire for management purposes, in ways that are interesting not only in the historical context but also in the present. We burn meadows at the edge of forests in early spring time, when the snow still is falling. This practice is used to make travelling easier, and vegetation more divers, productive, and nutritious for animals. It is also interesting to note that this practice is carbon negative: during that time of year, grasses store their carbon hydrates in the soil. So, when we burn meadows in early spring, it primes the ecosystem to grow rapidly. Furthermore, by burning the area prior to the wildland fire season, you prevent smoke pollution from burning grass, and prevent wildland fires from spreading.

Wildland fire management therefore does not just mean fire suppression, it means managing landscapes and grass lands, possibly using fire as a management practice – whether that is to improve the forage for the animals, increase biodiversity, increase the possibilities for people to travel through an area, or to understand how fires evolve in different areas.

We also have a long history of using fire to preserve wood. Fire-burned wood does not rot, so Gwich’in use it for caribou fences. As we look around the globe there may be other lessons that we can learn and that we should share with other Northern communities.

What are the first steps in these projects and when do you expect first outcomes?

Firstly, we are hoping that Arctic States get interested in co-leading the projects with us. For the Arctic Fire project, we are anticipating the mapping to move along fairly rapidly. We will compile the burn information and share this information on an annual basis.
For the EPPR project, we are hoping that both Arctic States and Arctic Council Observers will join. I would like to see more Observers participating in and contributing to the activities.