Problems of Place: Finding Fire in British Columbia and Norway

When I first arrived in Norway in the spring of 2019, I looked around and wondered if I had accidentally boarded the wrong plane. Perhaps I had dreamed the 24-hour journey that had just brought me to the southwest corner of Rogaland, and instead I was still back home, on the west coast of British Columbia. Around me, familiar ferns and mosses grew between the trunks of pines and spruce. Rhododendrons, yarrow, and buttercup bloomed. The North Sea did not smell noticeably different from the Pacific, and it was recognizably icy.

I was in Norway to develop a comparative history of wildfire and smoke management, and as I looked at this familiar landscape I knew immediately I was on the right track. I wanted to know how people in both countries experienced catastrophic burns, dealt with air pollution, and managed fuels through practices like prescribed burning. Sure, there were differences in the forestry and fire regimes of British Columbia and my soon-to-be adopted home in Southern Norway, but those differences were insubstantial in comparison to the fundamental similarities between the two places. Or so I thought.

It did not take long after moving to Norway full time in January 2021 to realize that my initial perceptions had been overly simple. When I stepped off the plane, I stepped into the rain. It rained most days of my ten-day quarantine. When it did not rain, it snowed and froze. Landslides and floods graced local headlines, and whenever I went for walks, I sank up to my ankles in land saturated with water. When I called home, my friends and family speculated about the severity of the coming smoke season and spoke about the strains on our small town’s resources caused by fire refugees––most of whom remained unhoused months after the summer burns had been extinguished. At similar latitudes and surrounded by similar ecologies, I suddenly felt as if Norwegian and Canadian experiences of fire could not have been more different.

I had begun to doubt the very premise of my research. Given the rain, and the wet, and the landslides, did Norway ever catch fire at all? Then, one weekend in the hills behind my new home I noticed blackened snags and charcoal. The landscape was open, with a scattering of twisted pines and dwarf birch and carpeted thickly with dead yellow grass. Under the grass was about 5 inches of water, and yet it was clear that this place had once caught fire. I had stumbled into a classic Norwegian fire landscape: vulnerable in the spring when the snow first leaves, dry spring winds can combine with last year’s dead grass and a spark to produce wildfire. In such a popular hiking area, a campfire could spread quickly across the matts of fuel, climb the little pines, and consume a mountain. It wasn’t that Norway did not burn, I realized, it was that fire looked different here, and I had not yet learned to see it.

Caption: An old burn (2013) behind Vårlivarden, a popular hiking and cabin area in Hommersåk, Norway Description: : A blackened snag in the foreground sticks up out of a meadow full of long brown grass with a rock and forest-covered mountain in the background.
An old burn (2013) behind Vårlivarden, a popular hiking and cabin area in Hommersåk, Norway.
[Image description: A blackened snag in the foreground sticks up out of a meadow full of long brown grass with a rock and forest-covered mountain in the background.]

I am still a student of Norway’s wildfire regimes, but so far I have learned that people here, like at home, have a close relationship with combustion of both the domesticated and the wild varieties. One of Norway’s best selling books (Lars Mytting’s Hel ved – alt om hogging, stabling og tørking – og vedfyringens sjel) is about cutting and stacking firewood. On the evening of June 23, people celebrate Sankthans – a church holiday celebrating the birth of John the Baptist, but also a pagan holiday associated with bonfires (bål) and the solstice. On the night of the twenty-third, when the sun does not set until almost midnight, the air is thick with celebratory smoke. At cottages and farms, people burn brush to clear away waste and create pastures for animals. Heather burns (lyngbrann) were so historically prolific that local species are dependent on regular burns to reproduce and thrive. In the north, Sami managed fire to create roavve, patches of burned forest suitable for reindeer grazing. Similarly in Canada, energy historian Josh MacFadyen has shown that we depended on wood for fuel long after most of the rest of the world had switched to fossil fuels, and although we do not celebrate Sankthans, the act of sitting around a pallet fire with friends and family is inscribed in my summer memories. Rural people and First Nations communities have a long history of managing the landscape through fire to improve pasture, clear land, and encourage the growth of berries.

Smoke from Sankthans bonfires hangs over the fjord near Stavanger, Norway. Photo by author, June 2022.
[Image description: A photograph taken in the twilight with ocean and silhouetted landscape in the foreground. Smoke hangs in the sky over the land.]

There are differences, too. In Norway, the fires are smaller because the landscape is smaller: 5 million people live on 385,000 square kilometers, while in British Columbia the same number of people live on three times as much land. Understandably, the Norwegians have been quicker to extinguish their wild ignitions. They also deforested more of the land and grazed livestock in the mountains, resulting in less fuel overall and lower potential for the big burns that characterize my homeland.

Yet Norway and British Columbia have been on converging paths since the late nineteenth century. Forestry companies planted North American Sitka spruce as a crop (the trunks are larger and straighter than Norwegian spruce) and as a windbreak, especially on Southern Norway’s exposed coastlines. Norway and Canada adopted similar suppression policies by the mid twentieth century that led to fuel accumulations, the spread of fire-prone ecologies, and the destruction of cultural knowledge about managing wildfire. In Norway the result is fires like the Sorta fire in 2021, which moved aggressively over the landscape before it jumped 270 metres across the fjord to burn homes and force hundreds of people to evacuate.

Even in the escalations of the climate crisis, I see the outlines of hope when I look from Norway to British Columbia and back again. Suppression regimes were always imperfect. Indigenous and community-based fire knowledge has persisted, and under new initiatives supporting cultural burning, they are flourishing again. In learning a new fire culture, one that is both similar and different from the one I left, I have added a collection of practices, relations, and ways of being with fire to my repertoire. I have begun to think of modern fire management, especially prescribed fire, as a revitalization of old community-based traditions rather than a modern innovation requiring revolution in land management––perhaps a kind of retro-innovation. And, I have begun to learn to read Norwegian fire landscapes for all their subtleties, and for what they can teach about keeping our fire ecologies healthy, at home, and around the whole boreal zone.

*Cover image: A valley bottom burned to improve sheep pasture in rural Norway. Photo by author, June 2022.

[*Cover Image description: A green valley with a forested sides, a river in the middle, and a pasture dotted with boulders. There are large burn marks on the ground.]

Edited by Diana Valencia, reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.

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