Studying the stars, nurturing the Earth: wildfire management at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory

 

- Kaleden, British Columbia

An air tanker drops fire retardant at a fire near the NRC's radio observatory.

In 2014, a wildfire broke out less than 2 kilometres west of the NRC's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO). It came as no surprise – the Okanagan region in British Columbia (BC) has experienced record wildfires in recent years. The DRAO lies in White Lake Basin, in the rain-shadow of BC's coastal mountains, resulting in one of the driest forested areas in BC, and one of the warmest areas in the summer. Efforts to suppress wildfires have resulted in an increase in fuel for fires – trees encroaching on open grasslands, denser tree stands and grasses underfoot – all veritable kindling, at risk of ignition by humans or by lightning.

Realizing the need to protect the environment from this risk, the NRC reached out to forest management specialists and local First Nations with expertise in fire protocols, to better understand what the NRC could do to protect the unique wildlands surrounding the DRAO, and all of the wildlife and traditions it supports.

From the stars to the siya bushes, the White Lake Basin needs protection

The DRAO is Canada's only open-access radio observatory and a testbed for Canadian technology contributions to world-class telescopes. The DRAO is surrounded by more than 5,000 acres of undeveloped land – helping to keep the site radio-quiet which allows radio telescopes to detect the extremely faint radio signals emitted by distant objects in space.

With no wildfires for decades, trees and vegetation had thickened near open grasslands near the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, creating fuel for potential wildfires.

The land also has great cultural significance. For thousands of years, First Nations communities have lived in the Okanagan. They have played an important role in wildfire management. For this reason, the NRC partnered with local First Nations to develop and implement an important plan to help protect the land.

Such protection is critical for the local ecology. The quiet grasslands surrounding the site are one of the largest remaining areas of intact natural landscape in the region, with a high level of biodiversity. The White Lake Basin hosts dozens of species at risk and critical habitats protected by the provincial and federal governments.

A plan to reduce the risk of wildfires in the White Lake Basin

One part of the wildfire treatment plan involves removing trees to thin the canopy to help reduce the spread of any future wildfire.

From 2018 to 2021, through careful planning and engagement with local First Nations, along with local stakeholders and land users, the NRC was able to develop a wildfire treatment plan that would effectively reduce the risk and impacts of any new wildfire. This plan would also minimize adverse effects on the environment, wildlife and culturally important land.

Designed to mimic the effects of naturally occurring, low-intensity fires that are typical historically for the White Lake Basin area, the plan identified ways to reduce the amount of fire fuel, such as removing fallen or dead trees, thinning the forest canopy, and removing ladder fuels.

The NRC project team collaborated with forest management specialists, local Indigenous groups with wildfire and ecological expertise, and biologists, to understand and manage the environmental interactions of the project. This included undertaking several environmental studies, creating environmental monitoring plans and identifying sensitive ecosystem components and cultural resources and sites to be avoided during the treatment activities.

Over the winters of 2022 and 2023, the Penticton Indian Band is leading the prescription treatment activities, from thinning overgrown tree stands to pruning dead tree limbs, and more, to bring the land back to a natural state.

Overall, the wildfire management project and associated treatments are considered not only to be critical to DRAO site and public safety, but also to have a net-positive impact on the environment. The NRC is extremely grateful for the advice provided by local Indigenous groups, forest management and biological advisors, and local partners, for protecting this important environment, which supports so many activities, from here to the stars.

The history behind the Penticton Indian, Syilx Okanagan People and wildfire management

The Penticton Indian and Syilx Okanagan People have taken care of all lands, waters and tmixʷ (all living things) within Syilx Territory since time immemorial. During the time of st'elsqilxʷ the Syilx People were wished here by the Creator, K̓ʷuləncútn. Humans did not have the natural instincts that were inherent in all timixʷ which allowed them to survive and live upon and with tmxʷulaxʷ. Instead, K̓ʷuləncútn gave our first peoples memories - memories that have been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years.

The first peoples were also born without fur to keep them warm, without claws and sharp teeth to protect themselves, and without agility and speed to catch food. Recognizing this, the animal people sacrificed themselves so that the Syilx People could have and use them to survive within the world. By way of these gifts, a covenant was made with the Syilx; in exchange for the knowledge shared by K̓ʷuləncútn and the sacrifices made by the animal people, the Syilx People were given an important and critical responsibility: to take care of tmxʷulaxʷ and timixʷ. This responsibility has been upheld for hundreds of generations and continues to this day.

For countless generations, the Syilx have been one with the land, plants and animals. We have lived our lives in accordance with a set of deeply ingrained ethical principles which govern the way we take care of ourselves and our relatives. Our principles and protocols are applied in all instances of our lives.

There are many protocols associated with the utilization of fire on the land. Prescribed burning and forest fuel management are a critical part of Syilx land management and have been implemented in collaboration with tmixw for thousands of years. Specially trained fire keepers hold sacred knowledge regarding these protocols and bring that knowledge to bear when undertaking landscape level planning prescribed burning plans and processes.

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