Many First Nations communities have been uniquely impacted by the disastrous start to the 2017 wildfire season in B.C. Often remote and hard to reach, many people in First Nations communities have been reluctant to leave or refused to altogether, opting to stay on and fight the fires on their own.
Across the Chilcotin Plateau several First Nations communities were issued evacuation orders last week as fires raged out of control. Chief Joe Alphonse of the Tl’etinqox First Nation community of Anaham Reserve announced that some members of the community would be staying behind, several to fight the fire.
“We’re going to fight for our place,” the chief said. “We’d rather be out there fighting, protecting, than allow somebody else. We appreciate the work [of firefighters] … but this is what we want.”
The chief said the community was well-prepared to hold its ground, with enough food and medicine to last a few weeks.
“We’re proud people and we want to fight for what we have left,” he said. “We may lose everything, but if we do, then at least we know we gave it 110 per cent. There’s comfort in that.”
A run-in with RCMP followed over his decision to stay put.
“I notified them [the officers] that we’re not leaving,” Alphonse said. “Community stress levels were really high and RCMP said, for those that don’t leave, they will call the Ministry of Children and remove the children.”
After that, Alphonse said, tempers flared. A troubled history of relationships between the RCMP, the Ministry of Children, and the Tl’etinqox First Nation didn’t help the already tense situation.
When an evacuation order goes into effect, the RCMP mandate is to advise people to move to safety and inform them of the risks they’d take in staying behind.
Adults who are mentally competent are entitled to remain on their property if they wish. However, Mounties could remove minors under the Child, Family and Community Service Act, if they were in danger.
“Children may be removed for their own safety,” RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Annie Linteau said. “It’s certainly not where we want to get, and there’s a fair amount of discretion, but we do have a responsibility to protect those who are not in a position to make adult decisions.”
Evacuations are emotionally stressful to everyone, but an expert in the field says they can be especially so for First Nations communities and residential school survivors.
Amy Christianson, a fire research scientist in Edmonton with the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada, has studied situations where First Nations people have been forced to evacuate from their homes.
“We’ve talked to hundreds of First Nations people who have gone through these situations and it is highly stressful for them. They’re getting sent out of their communities with very little warning time to places that they are very unfamiliar with,” she said. “[A lot of] our participants are saying in future evacuations they won’t leave their community again.”
The history of residential schools also complicates things, she said, as the evacuations can revive painful memories of authorities stepping in to forcibly remove children or experiences of the schools themselves.
She said the support of neighbouring or fellow First Nations communities can be enormously helpful for evacuees facing the frightening experience of being separated from their close-knit communities.
Chief Roger William of the Xeni Gwet’in of Nemaia Valley near Williams Lake says his community — which is not under evacuation order — is helping nearby First Nations communities with food and other necessities as well as welcoming several evacuees.
Christianson also pointed out in Kamloops the Tk’emlúps First Nation conducted a water ceremony at an evacuation centre to add a spiritual, healing component to the experience.
She said it could be beneficial to look at alternatives to evacuations in future, adding countries like Australia have implemented a stay and defend system, where plans are developed well in advance to empower communities to shelter in place and protect themselves from fire.
Christianson, who identifies as Métis, said Indigenous people have used fires — including controlled fires — for thousands of years. However, current conditions on reserves make First Nations more vulnerable to the impacts of wildfires and decades of “fire prevention” have rendered them powerless to use their traditional practices to safeguard their communities.
First Nations “firekeepers” used to intentionally use flames to purify the land by setting fire to berry bushes, hillsides and even mountains to renew growth and clear brush and create natural fireguards.
The grandchildren of one of these remarkable women, Annie Kruger, said they remember when she used to light an Export A Green cigarette, throw on her logger’s jacket and head out to set fires near Penticton, B.C. She was a firekeeper — as were generations before her in the Okanagan region of the province. She kept up the practice until her death in 2003.
“Our family have been firekeepers for thousands of years,” said Pierre Kruger, Annie’s son.
Kruger cited several big fires he said his family started hundreds of years ago when lines of Kou-Skelowh people walked beating drums to warn wildlife before setting fire to what’s now called Sylix territory.
“We warned the birds and four-leggeds,” he said. “My mother taught us every fire is like a snowflake — no two are alike.”
UPDATE: The following press release was issued by the Tl’etinqox Government.
This morning Tl’etinqox (Anaham) still stands after a fierce fire storm fanned by strong South-Westerly winds jumped the Chilcotin River and bore down directly toward their homes.
Crews of well-trained fire fighters, 125 of them First Nations, used every resource available to them to fight back and divert the fast moving inferno that stopped just prior to their community entrance.
Tl’etinqox Chief, Joe Alphonse, who earlier defied an evacuation order, said “Our community would not be standing today had we heeded the RCMP order. Our new Health Care Center, new school, Church, store and many homes may not be here today.”
When the time came, all non-fire related personnel were relocated to facilities in neighboring Tsilhqot’in communities and will remain there until the current threat subsides.
The Tl’etinqox community is grateful to all First Nations, provincial and out-of-province fire personnel who assisted in this effort. The Tl’etinqox people also want to thank the many volunteers who continue to provide food and assistance to our community.
As a community, we ask our First Nation Spiritual leaders to go into Ceremony for all those affected by fires, and we appreciate all prayers sent our way.
Given current conditions media should refrain from calling. The Chief of the Tl’etinqox Government may accommodate media inquiries once the fires subside.
With files from CBC News