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Burn-off a mixture of science, tradition


“I did pretty good holding up the rain,” said Dave Debungie, traditional native watchman and interpreter, as he stood in a smoking field of charred grass.

“I had a ceremony,” he remarked calmly as a few hundred metres behind him, a line of fire still burned across a second field under the control of firefighters darting in and out of the smoke.

A few hours earlier, a crew of firefighters and biologists had pulled into the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre in fire trucks and 4x4s to do a regenerative burn-off.

The area is a rare habitat called Prairie/Oak savannah. It is home to a number of specific insects and plants.

“If it’s not burnt on a regular basis, it will be overgrown,” said Jennifer Mercer, an aquatics biologist and co-ordinator of the Rainy River Watershed Program.

“We want to try to prevent the encroachment of the poplar,” she added, pointing to a young grove on the edge of the savannah.

The habitat has been preserved through traditional fires lit every spring by the natives over hundreds of years. More recently, firefighters from the Manitou Rapids fire department have done the burn-off.

This year, Ministry of Natural Resources fire crews joined them to share their expertise.

But before anyone arrived on the scene, Dave Debungie was there. With a pipe full of sacred tobacco, he held a solitary ceremony with the spirits of the soil. Like Mercer, he wants the burnt area to be replaced with strong new growth.

“I asked the spirits that when they [the plants] were burnt to get the new ones to come up again,” he explained.

When the fire crews arrived, Debungie had everyone pay homage to the spirits by placing a pinch of tobacco and a handful of dirt on the mounds which cover ancient artifacts.

Then he stepped back to watch as MNR firefighter Trevor Scott broke the crew up into teams.

“We’re going to try to accomplish two objectives,” Scott hurried to explain to the crews as a bit of rain began to fall. The hope was to burn the savannah grass around the oaks and completely burn out the poplar groves.

“We’ve got 85 percent dry, and 50 percent is matted, 50 percent standing,” said Scott, “We’ll probably go all along the river because we have a north wind.”

The crew split up to each end of the designated area to burn a swath which would prevent the fire from going beyond the area’s boundaries.

Scott and fire operations officer Harrold Boven directed as the first flames were lit. The first attempt fizzled because of the rain but the second one took off.

After receiving radio approval from the Fort Frances headquarters, MNR and Manitou Rapids firefighters let the wall of fire roar across the field.

Firefighters followed the burn-off, which quickly moved along over the mounds and down into a valley alongside the river.

From above, Debungie stood quietly in the charred area, cigarette in hand, and watched as a mini-tornado rose from the flames below. Boven had explained how the clashing of temperatures was causing the funnels.

Debungie had another, more spiritual explanation.

“That’s when they come out from the fire,” he whispered as the funnel disappeared in the clouds.

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