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Aboriginal prescribed burning and landscape history in North Western Alberta.

The extensive prairies of the Peace River country aroused considerable comment in the historical literature. Those "beautiful meadows ... and groves of poplars irregularly scattered," (2) as Alexander Mackenzie wrote in 1792, were a meat larder for the fur trade and a bread basket for the settlers. The origin of these prairies, so anomalously located within the boreal forest, has been explained as an adaptation to salinized soils, created by post-glacial drainage from the mountains. (3) The maintenance of these grasslands is, on the other hand, often attributed to human practices, specifically to what is now called prescribed burning. (4)

Prescribed burning involves the deliberate use of fire to create certain effects in the landscape. It removes old and dying vegetation and returns those nutrients to the soil. Plants revert to earlier successional stages characterized by higher levels of productivity. Central to this concept of prescribed burning is nature and frequency of the fire, not just the fact that a fire occurred.

The aspects of fire needing adjustment to produce the desired effects are intensity and rate of spread. These are affected by a number of variables. The size and topography of the area to be burned will affect ease of control. Fuel type, quantity, size, arrangement, and moisture content are all significant. Weather variables include temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction on the day of the burn. Many of these variables are controlled by seasonality. In temperate and northern regions, spring and late fall are the best times to carry out a burn of light to medium intensity. The frequency of burning varied from annual burning to burning in consecutive years to a longer periodicity to re-start plant succession in treed areas. (5)


The examination of prescribed burning by the Dene, Cree and Metis peoples in the central and upper Peace River area in the early 1900s was initiated in the 1970s by the late Henry T. Lewis, a pioneer in research on Aboriginal prescribed burning. (6) My own 1976-78 research focussed on the Dene of Hay Lakes and the Upper Hay River. (7) These research projects were based on "memory ethnography," the recollection by community members of their own past activities.

Although prescribed burning was closely circumscribed after the arrival of the Forestry Service in the early 1940s, elders in the 1970s could still describe the burning activities of the pre-1940 period.

Prescribed burning is a term drawn from western forestry science. While it is clear the Dene used fire in focussed, intentional ways, the context was quite different than that of the forestry service. Instead of a general acceptance of the value of fire suppression, the usual Dene attitude was that freely running fire was a problem only if it actually threatened people or drove away game. There were no large permanent settlements to be protected, and fire-killed timber was not a commercial loss, but provided great firewood, desperately needed in the long, cold winter.

Burning around log homes was carefully monitored with pails of water and wet spruce branches ready to douse any wayward flame, but Dene prescribed burning in areas away from family groups was implemented in quite a casual way. For men on hunting or trapping trips, "letting the campfire go" was a common technique either in the bush or on the much larger Peace River prairies. On the latter areas, young people also were sent out on horseback in the spring with matches. Not for them the material technology marshalled by the Forestry Service to closely control spread and intensity of fire. The prescription of the Dene uses of fire lay in the selection of environmental conditions, particularly determined by the season and the weather conditions of the day.

Noted an elder, "Burning is good around May. When it's hot and the big snow has almost all gone except for some in the woods, then we have to burn." (8)

Another elder stated, "When we were still hunting and travelling towards the fall, when the plants were dried up, then we would let the fires go. We could build a campfire for tea, then just leave it and continue on our way. From there sometimes it starts, sometimes just goes out ... [it had] the protection of the snow."

The Dene people carried out most of their burning in the spring when the weather was cool and moist. When burning hay meadows, snow in the bush acted as a fire guard. Burning later in the spring in warmer conditions would be used only to reduce areas of deadfall. Greater care then was needed due to the higher daily temperatures and the accumulation of dry fuel. Bodies of water and old burns were used as fire guards and the dead trees would be gradually cleared out over a number of years.

Fall burning also occurred, again in cool, damp weather. Ideally, the first snow had already fallen and melted. Fall burning had certain disadvantages: it destroyed winter forage and there was more danger of the fire escaping. However, fall burning could be a safeguard against a late or wet spring. As the snow melted in the spring, the scorched earth would warm up faster, creating the conditions for early germination of grass seeds.

Also, a combination of spring and fall burning could have favoured large grazers/ browsers, such as bison and later free-roaming horse herds. Such grazers usually used small prairies in the winter and larger ones in the summer. Wind was a critical factor. In the summer the breeze on the large prairie helped keep insects at bay. In the winter, staying on small prairies minimized wind chill and the wind-crusted snow that made foraging difficult. (10) Thus, fall burning on the large prairies would not have disadvantaged winter foraging, since these prairies were not in use. Instead, it would have provided the earliest possible fresh forage in the spring. Spring burning on the small prairies would have ensured fresh growth for the animals in the following winter.

As stated by an elder, two main types of areas were chosen for prescribed burning: "go 'leyde--that means where you burn and all the little branches come out, where the moose eat; and the other is klo 'degogedaleyde. That's the prairie where you grow hay for the horses." (11)

The first location involved burning in the bush, often along the edges of sloughs and streams. Light burning would encourage sprouting from the bases of such shrubs as willow, alder, birch, and aspen. These sprouts provided a more nutritious and in some cases more palatable browse for moose and hare. Since the new sprouts were lower in height, hare could feed easily. Abundant, well nourished hare in turn drew lynx. Burning along streams also resulted in a nutritious grass growth, attractive to small herbivores such as mice which in turn were attractive to weasels and foxes. These environments were productive for both hunting and trapping. Burning also was used in the bush to maintain trails for ease of travelling and hunting. Deadfall areas were eliminated to facilitate finding and stalking game and also as a preventative against the destructive large wildfires.

Annual burning on hay meadows improved forage for horses and presumably for bison in the early 1800s. It reduced the number of insects, stopped the invasion of grassland by aspen, and according to Dene, reduced disease among horses by destroying horse dung. Stands of mature aspen on the edge of the prairie often were burned out over a number of years to provide fire wood. Sloughs in grassland areas were kept open by the elimination of litter build-up, thus favouring breeding pairs of water birds. This style of burning would not only have kept the broad Peace River prairies open, but also the extensive hay meadows of the Hay-Zama lakes and other smaller prairie/meadow openings in the forest.

"I didn't set the forest on fire just for the sake of burning, but so that I could return to hunt the next year and live," said a Dene elder. (12)

In comparing prescribed burning in northwestern Alberta with that of Australia and California, Henry Lewis (13) was able to define two overall patterns of burning, applied according to habitat. Plant communities in areas with lower animal productivity were managed with a yard and corridor pattern. "Yards" refer to open areas, that is, small meadow or prairies; and "corridors" to openings such as trails and edges along lakes and streams. Game was attracted to these areas by the quality and abundance of feed, so hunters could rely on encountering them; and the animals were in better condition. This pattern of burning was characteristic of the forested area to the north of the Peace River grasslands.


In contrast, a mosaic pattern of burning is associated with more open country and higher animal productivity. Grassland-parkland areas were burned in patches, maintaining a high degree of diversity. The Peace River grasslands were just such a mosaic supporting a high animal abundance and diversity. Not only were the typical animals of the southern boreal forest present, but also plains animals such as the buffalo and antelope. (14) In 1793, Mackenzie noted that many bison and elk herds around the confluence of the Peace and the Sinew [now Pine] rivers and commented that the country "is so crowded with animals as to have the appearance in some places of a stall-yard from the state of the ground, and the quantity of dung which is scattered over it." (15)

The dynamic link between the yard and corridor and mosaic patterns of burning is animal productivity. If that changed, one would expect hunters to adapt the pattern of burning. If animal productivity increased in an area burned in the yard and corridor method, one would expect burning patterns to move towards a mosaic type, and vice versa. The Peace River grasslands might seem to be an ideal case study for this theory. Owing to the demands of the fur trade, particularly during the pre-1821 competitive period, game populations did experience a relatively rapid depletion. Bison and antelope populations were extirpated by the mid-1800s. (16) However, any data on transition in burning patterns has been obscured by other historical factors. The fur trade not only placed a great demand on local resources, but it introduced diseases, devastating the Dene hunters who had managed the game and the landscape with this technique.

Agricultural settlement, beginning in the 1880s, further disrupted the foraging economy and the landscape it shaped. Ironically, it was the grassland landscape, so long maintained by Aboriginal prescribed burning, that attracted agricultural settlers.

Prescribed burning had a tremendous ecological and economic significance for north-western Alberta Aboriginal groups and the land and natural resources they depended upon. It is not surprising that fire as a creative force is a theme in one of the Dene origin stories:

"When the world began, there was nothing but rocks and fire. There were no trees or grass. The whole world was on fire ..." (17)


(1) I would like to acknowledge my intellectual debt to the late Henry T. Lewis This paper is dedicated to his memory. Hank Lewis revitalized the initial work done in North America by the cultural geographer, Carl Sauer, and the anthropologist, Julian Steward; and expanded such work into Australia. Lewis' 1993 autobiographical paper, "In Retrospect," in T. C. Blackburn and K.M. Anderson (eds), Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians, Anthropological Paper No. 40. (Menlo Park, California: Ballena Press) 389-400, outlines the development of this remarkable and productive career.

(2) W. Kaye Lamb, ed. Letters and Journal of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1970), 243.

(3) K. Wilkinson and E. A. Johnson, 1983, "Distribution of prairies and solonetzic soils in the Peace River District, Alberta," Journal of Canadian Botany 61: 1851-60

(4) George M Dawson, as quoted in John Macoun. Manitoba and the Great North-West. (Guelph, 1882), 125.; E. H. Moss, 1952. "Grasslands of the Peace River region, Western Canada," Canadian Journal of Botany 30:98-124.

(5) Prescribed burning is well documented among northwestern North American Aboriginal groups, eg. Leslie Main Johnson, "Aboriginal Burning for Vegetation Management in Northwest British Columbia," Human Ecology, 22:2:(1994):171-88; Nancy Turner, "'A Time to Burn': Traditional Use of Fire to Enhance Resource Production by Aboriginal People in British Columbia," in Robert Boyd, ed. Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest. (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999), 185-218

(6) Henry T. Lewis. 1977. "Maskuta: the Ecology of Indian Fires in Northern Alberta," Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, vol. VII;I:15-52; A Time for Burning. (Edmonton: Boreal Institute for Northern Studies, 1977).

(7) Theresa A. Ferguson, Productivity and Predictability of Resource Yield. Aboriginal Controlled Burning in the Boreal Forest. M.A. Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, 1979.

(8) Personal communication, 1976, male Dene informant, born 1899.

(9) Personal communication, 1976, male Dene informant, born 1903.

(10) Hal W. Reynolds and Donald G. Peden. "Vegetation, Bison Diets and Snow in the Slave River Lowlands," Section 37 In Hal W. Reynolds and A.W.L. Hawley, eds. Bison Ecology and Crop Production in Relation to Agricultural Development In the Slave River Lowlands, Northwest Territories, Canada, p. 208.

(11) Personal communication, 1976, female Dene informant, born 1951, author's transcription of Dene terms.

(12) Personal communication, 1977, male Dene informant, born 1898.

(13) Henry T. Lewis and Theresa A. Ferguson, "Fire Yards, Fire Corridors and Fire Mosaics: How to Burn a Boreal Forest," Human Ecology, vol. 16:1(1988):57-77.

(14) W. Kaye Lamb, ed. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1957), 117. Although antelope are not usually acknowledged as ranging this far north, see Theresa A. Ferguson, "Documenting Pronghorn Antelope antilocapra americana in the Peace River Grasslands, Alberta," Canadian Field Naturalist, vol. 117:4(2004):657-58.

(15) W. Kaye Lamb, ed. Letters and Journals of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1970), 264.

(16) Theresa A. Ferguson, "Wood Bison and the Early Fur Trade," in Patricia A McCormack and R. Geoffrey Ironside, eds. The Uncovered Past: Roots of Northern Alberta Societies. (Circumpolar Research Series No.3. Edmonton: Canadian Circumpolar Institute, 1993.); Theresa A. Ferguson, "Documenting Pronghorn Antelope antilocapra americana in the Peace River Grasslands, Alberta." Canadian Field Naturalist. Vol. 117:4 (2004):657-658.

(17) Personal communication, 1976, Dene male informant, born 1899, Dene female informant, born 1903.

Theresa A. Ferguson teaches Anthropology at Athabasca University, Edmonton, and engages in contract research for Aboriginal claims in the Treaty Eight area.
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Author:Ferguson, Theresa A.
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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