© baggis / flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
The Arctic Wildland Fire Sharing Circle brought together diverse voices to share projects, tools and research to start new conversations and build networks to tackle Arctic wildland fires.

“We have had a front row seat to an Arctic on fire – a precursor to a world of flame.”

These words were spoken by Edward Alexander, Co-Chair of Gwich’in Council International, as he set the scene for scientists, State representatives, Indigenous Peoples, and other experts and interested parties that gathered to discuss an increasingly pressing issue – wildland fires in the Arctic.

In recent years, Arctic wildfires have increased in frequency and intensity. While fire is a natural part of Arctic ecosystems, the changing nature of wildland fires has brought challenges that require greater collaboration, knowledge sharing and partnership around the circumpolar North. The Arctic Council is addressing the issue of wildland fires with several projects related to topics such as wildfire ecology, monitoring and emergency prevention, preparedness and response. To bring these often-intersecting topics together, and to learn about related projects and ideas, a Sharing Circle event was held at the end of 2021.

The Sharing Circle consisted of keynotes, presentation sessions, questions and reflections spread over two days, with breakout sessions at the end of each day, enabling projects and organizations to learn and share highlights of their work, driving questions and opportunities for involvement.

“This Sharing Circle is a unique opportunity for experts, knowledge holders, project leaders and interested parties to join together and share and discover the ongoing work and innovative projects related to our common issue of Arctic wildfires,” said Nikolay Korchunov, then Chair of the Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials (2021-2023). “It’s an important effort to identify synergies between initiatives, bring the right minds and resources together to address this issue in a holistic and cross sectoral manner.”

The Arctic Council Working Groups Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), in collaboration with Permanent Participant Gwich’in Council International (GCI) organized the Arctic Wildland Fire Sharing Circle. Miami University hosted and facilitated the Sharing Circle.

See Edward Alexander's keynote introduction here, and watch all videos from the Sharing Circle on Vimeo:

Wildfire versus wildland fire definition

The term ‘wildland fire’ includes fires that are intentionally ignited by ecological professionals, while the term ‘wildfire’ only encompasses fires that are unintentional. The United States National Park Service defines wildfire and wildland fire by the following:

  • A wildfire is an unplanned fire caused by lightning or other natural causes, by accidental (or arson-caused) human ignitions, or by an escaped prescribed fire that is intentionally ignited by park managers to meet management objectives.
  • Wildland fire is an overarching term describing any non-structure fire that occurs in vegetation and natural fuels. Wildland fire encompasses both prescribed fire and wildfire.

Setting the scene: Why address wildland fires in the Arctic?

Edward Alexander lit a fire at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska that burned throughout the entire Sharing Circle, linking the significance of fire to the Gwich’in Nation and the work to be done in the Sharing Circle and beyond. Wildfires are associated with devastating loss, but Arctic communities have lived with fire for millennia. By bringing Indigenous Knowledge into the conversation, fire can be considered as a tool for biodiversity and addressing climate change.

“We’ve been working to share our Indigenous practices – our Gwich’in practices around wildland fire – that go beyond suppression towards renewal, to stimulating biodiversity and perhaps even combating climate change as a carbon negative process.”

- Edward Alexander

For example, Gwich’in burn grass in early springtime when there is still snow in the timberline. Due to the low amount of carbohydrates in the soil during that time the burning is carbon-neutral and fertilizes the soil for increased biodiversity of plant and animal species in the area.

Bringing Indigenous Knowledge into wildland fire management will be key in addressing this issue, especially as climate change impacts wildfires. Just some of these impacts include longer and more intense fire seasons, a greater number of fires and hidden peat or “zombie” fires. And it is not only climate change impacting wildfires, but also wildfires fueling a climate feedback loop due to the release of greenhouse gases.

What causes wildfires?

Many Arctic wildfires are caused by lightning strikes. As the Arctic warms, lightning activity increases, also increasing the likelihood of Arctic wildfires. Wildfires are also caused by human activity. The Arctic is warming at more than 3 times the rate of the rest of the world, making it possible for human activities such as industry and agriculture to move further north.

Once a wildfire in the Arctic starts, climate change can create conditions for especially intense fires on dry peatland and forests.

“Wildland fire has gone from being an effect of a global climate change to a driver of it. It intersects with human, environmental, and animal health.”

- Edward Alexander

Some of the effects of wildland fires include degraded air quality, which can damage human health. Fires threaten life, property and can have a significant impact on mental health. Further, ecosystems and local food sources are altered.

To demonstrate the impact of wildfires, Mikhail Pogodaev, Special Envoy on Indigenous Peoples and Regional Cooperation for the Russian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2021-2023), shared insights from the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). He noted that over the last two years, the extreme wildfire seasons exceeded traditional Indigenous Knowledge of the 40-year time span between severe fires, as well as the average annual number of wildfires. He also highlighted the impact to Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods, including among other things, the loss of pastures to wildfires and the associated economic impacts as well as the significant impairment of air quality.

Taking action to address wildland fires

A total of 90 participants joined the two-day Sharing Circle. Presenters and participants submitted 15 Arctic wildland fire initiatives both from within and outside of the Arctic Council.

The topic of wildland fires is an issue which encompasses activities across several of the Arctic Council Working Groups, providing strong collaboration potential. To monitor and better understand wildland fires, the Arctic Council Working Group, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), continuously assesses emissions from circumpolar fires as well as models current and future fires as part of its work monitoring short-lived climate forcers and climate change.

  • CAFF’s Arctic Fire project focuses on co-production, linking Indigenous Knowledge with fire ecology. The project involves collecting data on fire, best practices on fire management in the context of biodiversity and highlighting Indigenous Knowledge generation for a special issue journal on wildland fires in the Arctic in order to augment and enhance what we know about Arctic fire.
  • The Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP)Working Group is focused on the prevention and reduction of pollution in the Arctic. It recently began a pilot project called “Wildland fire management practices to reduce emissions of black carbon and other air pollutants” to build capacity in Arctic communities to manage fire-related pollutants and potentially reduce emissions".
  • For the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), which focuses on enhancing the environment, economies, culture and health of Arctic Peoples and communities, the management and impact of Arctic fires is a topic that overlaps naturally with its ongoing community-based work. While there aren’t any current SDWG projects directly related to Arctic fires, it welcomed future projects with this focus.
  • Emergency preparedness and response to Arctic wildland fires is addressed in the Arctic Council through EPPR’s Circumpolar Wildland Fire project. The project assesses instruments and best practices for emergency response to wildland fire. It aims to improve the coordinated response by Arctic States and Indigenous Permanent Participants in response to wildland fires in the Arctic, and to promote international cooperation and contracting of resources across state boundaries and relevant agencies. The project is focused on developing a template with clauses relevant for wildfire response and training, summarizing how each Arctic State manages operational response and creating a summary of standard practices and training by state.

Outside the auspices of the Arctic Council, several projects within Arctic States were highlighted.

  • ArcResc is a new initiative funded by the Ministry of Interior Finland seeking collaboration on best operational practices in Arctic environments. Representatives of EMERCOM, the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, presented the agency’s use of global satellite imagery to track and inform wildfire operations and spoke of the need for collaboration in the Arctic to tackle wildfires.

Several experts presented new tools, data, visualizations and research on Arctic wildfires.

  • Elena Kukavskaya, an expert in wildfires, forestry and remote sensing, presented geospatial products for estimating wildland fire fuel loads for central Siberia. Because Siberia constitutes a large portion of the global terrestrial carbon stock, wildfires and anthropogenic land use like timber extraction can impact the global carbon cycle.
  • Juha Aalto from the Finnish Meteorological Institute presented results of the multi-year IBA Forest Fires in Fennoscandia project, which showed a decreased burned area in forest fires over the past 30 years, with forest fire frequency and behavior dependent on weather, forest structure and human behavior including fire suppression.

Enhancing wildland fire cooperation

A major outcome of the Sharing Circle was that new conversations began across organizations, states, Indigenous Peoples, Working Groups, and other experts, and existing networks could be built upon. Wildland fire cuts across the boundaries of science, social issues, biodiversity and environmental protection. Building connections across disciplines will be essential as Arctic wildland fire projects advance.

The Sharing Circle served as a starting point for Arctic wildland fire discussion, collaboration and cooperation. Although work is already underway, much more remains to be done.

“We know fire doesn’t respect territorial integrity. Smoke travels from Sweden to Russian communities and from Siberia to Alaska. Fires run across borders, all the time,” said Edward Alexander. “We’re still finding our direction in how we cooperate on the issue of fire, and how we learn from each other. It’s imperative that we do so all together, and with the utmost respect.”