North of Prince Albert in the RM of Buckland. Seeing burned out areas is starting to be the norm in many areas.
Photo by Amber Bear

Forest fires threaten First Nations communities and their ways of living 

by Amber Bear

As fire and heavy smoke crept perilously near to Grandmother’s Bay in the summer of 2021, Lac La Ronge Indian Band Councillor Gerald McKenzie faced the difficult task of helping evacuate his home community. Now, as community members contemplate the 2022 fire season, they are low on resources and trying to stock up on more pumps and hoses, McKenzie says.

According to National Wildfire Situation Report, in 2021, drought, lightning storms, and heat intensified across Canada. Forest fires have forced communities to evacuate and leave their homes for part of their summers. The displacement can be very distressful on some, especially the Elders. It is not easy to adjust in a new location.

Interviews with affected community members reveal that many First Nations communities across Turtle Island rely on the land for food and cultural practices, and cultural preservation is worthy of conservation. Protecting the land and encouraging good environmental stewardship in the next generation is very important. 

“It impacts us in many ways. It chases our animals away, you know, our moose, our deer, our rabbits,” Councillor McKenzie said.

 The daily diet still consists of wild food, so it impacts many of the community members’ health when they must turn to processed foods and fast foods.

The Grandmother’s Bay territory is a very culturally significant and fundamental piece to the culture and traditions of the people and needs to be protected. Trapping is still  part of everyday life. Fire damage to traplines reduces trappers’ income and is detrimental to cultural traditions.

Not having enough resources in the community is an increasing problem now that the occurrences of wildfires are happening more often. Local communities are creating their own emergency plans for wildfire management, McKenzie said. Conservation of the traditional territory is important to the community members.

“It impacts us in many ways. It chases our animals away, you know, our moose, our deer, our rabbits." - LLIB Councillor Gerald McKenzie

Councillor McKenzie speaks about the 2021 fire at Grandmother’s Bay and what can help the community be ready to face the threats of wildfire
Number of fires and areas burned in 2021 vs. the 10-year average
Charts retrieved from Canada's National Wildland Fire Situation Report
Charts retrieved from Canada's National Wildland Fire Situation Report

"Nobody could go and get their salmon supplies for the winter either because there were so many forest fires" - Racine Jeff, Tŝilhqot’in First Nation member.

British Columbia has also seen its fair share of devastation from fires. This year the province had hot, dry weather that was accompanied by lightning. The combination was enough to create 289 wildfires that burned 300,000 hectares from July to August alone.

Racine Jeff shared her past personal experience with wildfires around her home territory of Tŝilhqot’in First Nation and the impacts it had on life. Her family had to pack up and leave the comforts of her home community in the Wild Wood area near William’s Lake, British Columbia. Once she was evacuated for a month.

“Nobody could go and get their salmon supplies for the winter either because there were so many forest fires, there were a lot of fires surrounding where we fish and camp in the summer,” Jeff said, speaking of the 2017 fire season. 

Jeff said there were organizations that supported the evacuees such as The Red Cross. She recommends having insurance, which helped her through her evacuation. Jeff recalled the Rangers helping out the community during the wildfires. These community members who help their own communities are extremely important.   

Jeff also spoke of how her home territory of the Tŝilhqot’in First Nation was threatened with wildfire a couple times over the years and the community made a stand to remain and fight the fire to save their community. 

The Tŝilhqot’in National Government is stepping into help the surrounding habitat recover from the wildfires with a “no cow moose campaign,” after the fires heavily damaged wildlife populations.
The Indigenous Leadership Initiative

During the interviews I asked if any of the communities were partnered up with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, an Indigenous-led program that aims to help protect the environment and conserve the forests that many First Nations people rely on. The word is out and Councillor McKenzie had heard of the program but they are not partnered with them. The the video below was produced by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.