Alberta on Fire: A History of Cultural Burning

Fire science has come a long way but the growing practice of prescribed burning is actually a return to a deep past. Archaeological and paleoecological researchers are demonstrating that Western Canada has been burning at the hands of people for thousands of years. Much of what was thought to be wilderness in the early 1900s was likely a mosaic of manipulated landscapes influenced by controlled burns. Alberta has a rich history of fire use and the recognition of it has implications for modern conservation and land management.

Ancient Fires

Tracking the history of fire in a landscape can be challenging and, in the paleoenvironmental record, it’s particularly difficult to distinguish human from natural burning. Fire scientists, however, are untangling fire history in interesting places. Christina Poletto is a Master’s student at the University of Alberta who will soon extract a long core of lake mud in northern Alberta in order to analyse changing layers of charcoal and pollen deposited over thousands of years. This information provides a baseline of natural fire history that she hopes to compare to cultural landscapes surrounding archaeological sites. “I want to learn how First Nations used their knowledge of forest succession, not just to respond to fires but to know how and when to light them to encourage the return of berries, other plants, and game animals.” Researchers have also been detecting the frequency and severity of fires through analysis of Greenland ice cores, historic photographs, tree rings, and records of sand dune activity.

Historic images compilation 1
Repeat series photography (the comparison of historic and modern images) reveals landscape-scale impacts of fire suppression in mountain parks: namely the in-filling of uniform forests where patchy habitats once existed (images courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project, 2016).

Why Burn?

Oral history and early ethnographic records (observations of First Nations) indicate that fires were frequently lit and for a variety of reasons. On the prairies, fires were lit in the fall or early winter because it encouraged quicker re-growth of lush grass in the spring, which would in turn attract bison. Historians and archaeologists think that fires were lit around major buffalo jumps months in advance so the lush grass would attract big herds. In spring, groups like the Blackfoot also burned the understory of large groves to protect them from dangerous summer fires. When horses were introduced, First Nations burned grasslands in spring and fall to maintain pastures.

P138 PAA
A grassland fire being lit by members of the Blackfoot in 1918 (image P138 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta). The Blackfoot have legends and special ceremonies associated with cultural burning.

First Nations in northern Alberta, like the Dene and Cree, burned forest meadows to maintain grazing areas for bison and elk. Smaller patches, or ‘yards’, were burned in spring and would be returned to when berries were ripe, and years later, when willow re-growth attracted moose. When the fur trade swept west, trap lines and trails were regularly burned for ease of access and to encourage grasses that attracted rodents and fur-bearing predators.

Fire infographic
An infographic depicting the various purposes of First Nations burning practices in Alberta (by Todd Kristensen). The map and graph at the bottom depict the number of hectares that have been consumed by wildfires across Alberta since these statistics were recorded (statistics and spatial data provided by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Wildfire website).

Modern Burning and Fire Landscapes

Fires were once common and small – some scientists argue that fire suppression in the early 1900s has resulted in larger, more dangerous fires as patchwork landscapes are replaced with dense, homogenous forests. In mountain parks, land managers have re-introduced cultural (prescribed) burning to help re-establish mosaic landscapes and the diverse animal/plant communities that they support. Fire is being used across Alberta during certain seasons to decrease the risk of large, out-of-control fires that threaten infrastructure. Land planners are re-learning a complex knowledge base required to safely manage fires.

Forest fire
Modern prescribed burns can stabilize landscapes by decreasing the likelihood of out-of-control wildfires (image courtesy of Cody Marsh)

Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The painting below is by Calgary-based artist Sharon Hogg and it portrays a more cheerful, positive connection between people, fire, the landscape, and its plants and animals. The image challenges what many people think cultural burning is and what it actually involves. Historians and archaeologists have a responsibility to correct misconceptions and to recognise the wisdom of those who came before us. Effective and safe cultural burning involved an impressive knowledge base developed through generations of experience.


A full version of this article will appear in an upcoming issue of the Wild Lands Advocate.

Click here to learn more about the Mountain Legacy Project.

Written By: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey) and Ashley Reid (University of Alberta)

8 thoughts on “Alberta on Fire: A History of Cultural Burning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s