Policing Wildfires

Ivan Drury Zarin

Tŝilhqot’in cultural burning shows the alternative to wildfire destruction.

THE FIRES THAT burned the forests of western Canada through the spring, summer, and early fall of 2023 were the hottest, broadest and most destructive in the region’s recorded history. Two million eight hundred thousand hectares burned in British Columbia (BC) alone — twice the area burned during the previous record-breaking wildfire year of 2018.

The entire city of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, was evacuated, as was the entire city of West Kelowna, and a number of smaller communities and neighborhoods. Four hundred homes were destroyed, and three firefighters were killed on the job.

There is nothing more significant than the fact of the fires themselves — which should be indisputable evidence that global warming has reached a point of absolute crisis. The solution should be equally obvious: that we must end the destruction of our biosphere. To do that we urgently need a socialist reorganization of our world.

But this straightforward solution depends on the fulfillment of a double maximum program that we are not near realizing.

Even if we could pull off this feat immediately, we would still be stuck with managing the fallout from decades of carbon pollution and broader, interlocking problems created by the logic of the capitalist mode of production — from strip mining, to clear cutting forests, to paving over wetlands for ports, and damming and flooding environmentally critical mountain valleys for hydroelectric power, to responding to forest fires only after they’ve started burning.

For so long as we are painted into a corner of climate crisis, wildfire management will itself be a theatre of political activity. The strategies of fighting wildfires used by governments in Canada, similar to those used in all imperialist states, are rooted in a politics of private property, profit, and value production that treat forests as a store of “fixed” capital.

Add to that a politics of settler colonialism, the geographical and political framework that provides that store, free of charge.

Government strategies of wildfire management are failing precisely because of the limitations imposed by the capitalist and settler colonial frameworks that define them.

Rather than approach wildfires through ecosystem wellbeing, in a triad of land, water, and fire stewardship — the models practiced by Indigenous nations who worked the forests for millennia, before the recent arrival of European settlers — governments rely on suppression, a strategy I’m referring to as wildfire policing.

Shooting at Wildfires

The BC government’s longstanding commodity-management wildfire policy is essentially a police action. Once a fire reaches a point of crisis, politicians declare a state of emergency, deploy troops who shoot at wildfires with weapons designed to suppress the active event. This means water bombers, chemical sprays, pumps and hoses, trenches, breaks, and burns and borders cut into the land ahead of the fire’s spread.

The approach to fighting wildfires has the same logic as the policy of policing communities during social crises. Policing actions target the overflow effects of social relations in a given container.

In a city, social policing represses the survival and resistance activities of those people cast out of wage labor pools and all those who threaten, by their stubborn existence or by their organized actions, to disrupt the smooth iteration of capitalist circuits of production, distribution, and reproduction.

In a forest and on the land, fire policing represses the flames that spark out of fuel piles left as the wreckage of logging operations, which then escape to flame by the high temperatures of global warming. It spreads from isolated mountainsides to threaten major human settlements and passageways that transport critical infrastructure to those settlements.

Policing is the strategy of force deployed to dampen down or eliminate the elemental energies of communities, and natural world, that are antagonistic by nature to the demands of capitalist production.

After the disastrous summer of 2023, the BC New Democratic Party government announced plans for a province-wide wildfire taskforce. But the budget for wildfire management still tilts heavily toward policing fires.

Fighting the BC fires of 2023 cost nearly $1 billion. The previous decade, the Province spent an average of $300 million a year fighting fires. But between 2004 and 2018, the BC government invested only $81 million in prevention. From 2019 to 2023 it was less than $100 million. The government spent less than five percent of fire policing dollars on fire prevention.

Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, post-doctoral research fellow with the UBC Faculty of Forestry, estimates that cleaning up wildfire fuel would cost about $6,000 per hectare in BC’s interior forests, and about $30,000 per hectare in the coastal region.(1)

Even if the government were proposing to spend this kind of money on fire prevention, it would have to be read as a massive subsidy to forestry conglomerates, which the government protects, instead of demanding that they clean up the mess they make. There are 60 million hectares of forests in BC.

Wildfire Colonialism

What distinguishes the NDP’s climate destruction and wildfire policing from the policies of rightwing parties, the official opposition BC United and the far right BC Conservative Party, is that its execution includes civil society groups and some members of Indigenous nations.

From the point of view of settler society, this is partly because most of so-called British Columbia is not treatied. This means the “land question” — who has jurisdiction over the management of territories outside of municipalities — is vulnerable to legal and political challenge by First Nations. And it is partly so because of the government’s failure to respond to wildfires in Indigenous reserve and rural communities.

In 2018 the Tŝilhqot’in nation —whose lands lie in central British Columbia, between the settler towns of Williams Lake and Bella Coola — released a report(2) about the disastrous wildfire the burned through their community in 2017. They found that Indigenous communities in rural areas and on reserves receive “delayed and unequal wildfire protection, in part because of the Province’s prioritization of higher-value urban areas.”

Reserve lands are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which operate with some roles delegated to Indigenous leadership. However, emergency management protocols are more complicated, with responsibilities divided amongst all levels of government and agencies.

This is the maze that Indigenous leaderships navigate with difficulty during a wildfire crisis. In practice, the federal government expects that Indigenous leaderships will follow their lead.

When the Tl’etinqox government, one of the six Tŝilhqot’in communities in the northern interior of BC, decided not to issue an evacuation order during the massive 2017 fires, Canada responded by threatening to send in police and apprehend children who stayed at home with their families.

Tŝilhqot’in national government tribal chairman Nitsil’in Joe Alphonse argued that Tŝilhqot’in jurisdiction over the wildfire management is not only a matter of response efficiency. “The way that us as First Nations people move through the world and experience the world is vastly different from non-First Nations,” Alphonse said.

Canada’s paternalistic and colonial policy views Indigenous peoples as “a burden — as something that needs to be changed and assimilated;” a “historical perspective” that the government’s wildfire response in 2017 showed is “still active.”

The implication of Alphonse’s argument is that Indigenous jurisdiction over wildfire management is a matter of general Indigenous sovereignty over their territories.

Indigenous Stewardship

Managing wildfires is but one detail of a comprehensive Indigenous sovereignist politics that stewards the land.

A mythology fundamental to settler colonialism in Canada is that the “resources” on the land, like trees standing in the forest and salmon spawning up streams, are a naturally existing and free gift available to be exploited by capitalist industry.

But the lands occupied by Canada and the United States have been actively stewarded by Indigenous peoples for more than ten thousand years. Indigenous fire stewardship includes “cultural burning” to reduce fuel loads and modify landscapes, habitats, and fauna species to protect against fire destruction. Making forests more habitable also increases access to food sources.

This fire stewardship is an example of human labor power interwoven into the land. It is an intrinsic element of the land wealth stolen through settler colonialism.(3)

The forests invaded by industrial logging companies are not “raw;” they are the products of thousands of years of stewardship by Indigenous nations, following non-capitalist logic of reciprocal, land-based economies.

Revolutionary socialists have also often failed to reckon with the political and economic meanings of Indigenous land stewardship. The Marxist critique of capitalism that values are produced only though the exploitation of human labor power in the process of commodity production discounts the human labor power invested in the lands stolen and incorporated into that production regime as “fixed” capital.

Indigenous land, water and fire stewardship adds value to the lands that appear “natural” to the European eye — a view fundamental to an economic and social order that perceives nature as radically other to society. So when forestry conglomerates hire workers to clear cut a forest, they rip living trees out of their soils composed of a living amalgam of organisms, and abstract them — transforming them into commodity forms.

Those trees appear as fixed capital made productive by the application of labor power in the activity of chainsaw wielding and helicopter-flying workers. But the labor power of hundreds of generations of Indigenous peoples is interwoven with the non-human social relations that constitute that land; it is stolen, unpaid and unfree, in that same moment.

For governments eager to stop wildfires from burning cities and towns and destroying supply lines, the colonial viewpoint that treats the forest as “wild” disappears Indigenous peoples. Or, where it recognizes Indigenous nations at all, it treats them as external to the land. That means governments appropriate aspects of Indigenous fire stewardship practices as another element of a fire policing policy. But this will not work to stop fires.

As argued in a 2022 article, “The Right to Burn,” about Indigenous fire stewardship practices, “Indigenous knowledge is not a ‘thing’ that can be captured and incorporated into plans by agencies to inform wildfire management.”(4)

Abolish Wildfire Policing

Governments police the actions of Indigenous nations even when they set up partnerships. They force Indigenous nations to apply for permits, which must conform to Canada’s controlled burn-criteria, to conduct burns on Crown lands.

As socialists, we need to develop a revolutionary socialist politics of wildfires and forestry. For so long as Indigenous labor is unrecognized and stolen along with the trees and other wealth of the land, the only class interaction that workers, including forestry workers and fire fighters can have with the land is colonial.

A precursor to developing an autonomous working-class politics of land relations and a socialist program for wildfire management and logging — to take one example of the industries that depend on this exploitative relation — is to abolish the social relationship that steals Indigenous labor and social relations along with the land.

Even more critical is that Indigenous stewardship is an organic part of a whole Indigenous land, water and fire stewardship politics. It includes defense against oil and gas extraction, pipelines and logging old growth forests. These land defense actions are criminalized by the same governments that want to appropriate Indigenous stewardship practices when it suits them. Indigenous claims to exercise fire stewardship is about Indigenous national wealth. It is about the past as well as the future.


  1. Kier Junos and Pippa Norman, “B.C. needs to invest more into fire prevention: expert,” CityNews, August 23, 2023.
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  2. Tŝilhqot’in Nation, “The Fires Awakened Us,” Tŝilhqot’in report, 2018.
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  3. Lake, F.K., Christianson, A.C. (2019). “Indigenous Fire Stewardship.” In: Manzello, S. (eds) Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fires. Springer, Cham.
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  4. Kira M. Hoffman, Amy Cardinal Christianson, Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, William Nikolakis, David A. Diabo, Robin McLeod, Herman J. Michell, Abdullah Al Mamun, Alex Zahara, Nicholas Mauro, Joe Gilchrist, Russell Myers Ross, and Lori D. Daniels. 2022. “The right to burn: barriers and opportunities for Indigenous-led fire stewardship in Canada.” FACETS. 7(): 464-481.
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January-February 2024, ATC 228

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