For BC residents, the summer of 2017 is remembered as the record-breaking fire season that kept many in clouds of smoke for weeks. For doctoral student Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, it was the moment she decided to return to school and apply her previous ecology and research experience from Australia here in British Columbia, working directly with affected communities on post-fire recovery and restoration.

Now a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Forestry, Sarah’s research examines questions around collaborative wildfire management and community-led restoration. Her research is being conducted in partnership with the Secwepemcúl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society (SRSS), which was founded by eight Secwépemc communities who were directly impacted by one of the biggest wildfires of 2017. As well as working closely with communities to monitor forest recovery and identify restoration needs, Sarah aims to identify solutions for improving collaboration between First Nations and the provincial government across all stages of wildfire management and planning.

“I hope my research can shed some understanding as to how the communities that I'm working with are actively engaging in post-fire monitoring and restoration and are seeking to restore both ecological and cultural values across their territories.”

Since moving to Canada and starting her program, she’s focused her efforts on building relationships and working closely with the SRSS and its member communities to understand the key issues they face and how her research can contribute. The doctoral student hopes her interdisciplinary research – incorporating fire ecology, ethnobotany and social science - can help build an understanding of the ecological impacts of these wildfires, how to mitigate future risk, and the important role of Indigenous communities in (co-)leading this process.

“Increasingly we're seeing these fires impacting communities all over the province – even in Vancouver, with the health impacts of smoke. As highlighted by the provincial government’s review into the 2017 fires, a critical step in reducing these impacts is establishing Indigenous peoples as equal partners in emergency management”.  

Sarah’s goal is to contribute to transforming approaches to forest management to achieve both ecological and community resilience to wildfire, in ways that are respectful of and in direct response to community-expressed values and priorities.

Research Description

In British Columbia, 20th century practices of fire suppression and exclusion - coupled with climate change and legacies of past forest management - have resulted in longer and more severe fire seasons. The 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons burned a record-breaking 2.5 million hectares across the province and disproportionately affected First Nations communities. These impacts catalyzed many communities into action, and the 2018 Provincial Flood and Fire Review recommended establishing equal partnerships with First Nations governments, and incorporating Indigenous knowledge, across all stages of fire management and planning. Along with Canada’s current emphasis on advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, this points to a clear need to advance Indigenous-led collaborative approaches to landscape-scale forest restoration and adaptation. Working collaboratively with the Secwépemcul’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society – founded by eight Secwépemc First Nation communities directly impacted by the 2017 ‘Elephant Hill’ wildfire – my research will seek to understand how such approaches can restore both ecological and cultural values in fire-affected landscapes. Through a combination of ecological and qualitative social science methodologies, this research will contribute to the development of co-management initiatives that seek to support First Nations in (re)asserting traditional stewardship practices, knowledge and connection to land and place.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

At its core, public scholarship means being responsible and responsive to community partners. It is increasingly recognized that First Nations should be equal partners in all stages of fire management and planning, including post-fire restoration, and this partnership needs to translate into research. I hope that, through engaging in public scholarship, both the processes and results of my research will result in meaningful outcomes for the communities I am working with.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The PSI broadens the scope of what a PhD can and should look like and recognizes the value of engaging in collaborative research that will have impact beyond academia. For me, I see great value in being part of a community of fellow public scholars working in a diversity of publicly-engaged projects, and learning from others with experience in Indigenous and community-based methodologies and non-traditional scholarship.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My ‘career’ goals have always been less defined by a particular job or institution than by a sense of what gives me meaning and purpose in my work. In this sense, I hope that my PhD will be the foundation for a career in which I can work to better integrate applied social-ecological research with community-based fire and natural resource management. Given the focus of my PhD work, I particularly hope that my research – both now and into the future - will contribute to the greater work of advancing Indigenous-led approaches to forest and landscape stewardship and restoration.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My research is being developed in collaboration with the Secwépemcul’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society (SRSS), whose member First Nation communities partnered with the British Columbia provincial government to guide post-fire recovery and restoration within the Elephant Hill wildfire. A key focus of my PhD to date has been building relationships and working with the SRSS, Secwépemc leadership and natural resources staff, and other project partners including Forest Foods Ltd. in order to identify research opportunities and priorities. This process of connecting with both the people and the land around which my PhD will develop is critical for understanding how my research can meaningfully engage with and contribute to the work of these community partners.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

I first began exploring graduate programs in mid 2017 as wildfires were raging across British Columbia. In the time since there have been increasing calls from researchers, policy-makers and communities alike to transform approaches to forest management in order to achieve both ecological and community resilience to wildfire. I hope that my work can contribute to bringing this change forward in ways that are respectful of and in direct response to community-expressed values and priorities.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I returned to graduate study in the wake of the two most severe fire seasons on record in BC, and with a strong sense that any transformation of forest or fire management should actively involve Indigenous and other local communities in developing locally relevant adaptation and restoration programs. I saw graduate studies as an opportunity to combine my experiences in wildfire social sciences, ecology and community-based natural resource management and to connect research with on-ground management outcomes and community-led change.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

UBC’s Faculty of Forestry is a world leader in forestry and fire research, with a diversity of research programs spanning the social and environmental aspects of forest and fire management. As someone with an interdisciplinary background and leaning, this opportunity to connect with researchers working and partnering with communities in social-ecological research, disturbance ecology and Indigenous governance was a real motivator for me to study here. 


Public scholarship means being responsible and responsive to community partners. I hope that, through engaging in public scholarship, both the processes and results of my research will result in meaningful outcomes for the communities I am working with.