‘An emotional time’
A B.C. First Nation fights to save their community from a wildfire
As bright orange flames filled the sky and roared like a freight train, Beverly Ketlo thought it was time to say goodbye to the Nadleh Whut’en band’s beloved cultural camp.
Ketlo and Chief Larry Nooski sat in a car looking out at the devastating scene. The historic and sacred camp, where the First Nation sent their children to learn about their culture and laid to rest some of their loved ones, looked ready to disappear.
“My uncle’s ashes are actually buried on the mount there, because it’s a cremation mount,” said Ketlo. “I said my goodbyes to him, even though he’s already in the ground.
“It was an emotional time. Then the next day, it was very emotional for the whole community.”
The community in Fort Fraser, B.C., thought they’d lost everything, but in the end, only a smokehouse and two cabins belonging to Ketlo’s relatives burned down. Still, the losses are enough to bring some band members to tears, especially since they say no one told them the fire was so close.
“Broken,” Ketlo said of how she feels. “There was no communication with our community.”
The tiny First Nation now finds itself on the front lines of two fights: one against the enormous 910-square-kilometre Shovel Lake wildfire, and another against a disjointed federal funding system that left them scrambling to evacuate their people, buy firefighting equipment and set up an emergency operations centre as flames approached.
When Justin Trudeau visited nearby Prince George on Thursday, Nooski told the prime minister the First Nation was in dire trouble and needed help, said a band spokeswoman.
The source of their struggle, members say, is that First Nations reserves fall under federal jurisdiction, while municipalities are under provincial authority. While British Columbia has provided resources to cities and towns to prepare for wildfires, Indigenous groups argue they don’t get equal support.
Trudeau acknowledged the gaps on Thursday and pledged to clear up the flow of resources and ensure people in Indigenous communities get what they need.
Jean-Francois Tremblay, deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada, visited the Nadleh Whut’en later Thursday with Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit. Both were among those who took helicopter tours to survey the damage from the flames.
Tremblay declined comment, but John said he has tabled a proposal, for a second time, asking the federal government to create a $200-million fund to help B.C.’s 203 First Nations develop emergency response plans, buy equipment and train members over the next four years.
From the helicopter, plumes of thick grey smoke could be seen billowing from closely nestled treetops north of Fraser Lake. The success of burnoff operations was visible too, as lengthy fire guards wound through the forest next to stretches of scorched earth and disintegrated trees.
Mike Pritchard of the BC Wildfire Service said if the burnoff operations hadn’t been conducted, scattered houses not far away would have been lost.
Ketlo blamed a burnoff operation for the losses at the cultural camp, but the Wildfire Service said it hadn’t conducted any in the area and Pritchard suspects burning embers flying into the area were responsible.
From the moment the Shovel Lake wildfire began to grow out of control about two weeks ago, the Nadleh Whut’en have been through a crash course in emergency management.
Band spokeswoman Miranda Louie reached out to a cousin in the Tsilhqot’in Nation, which dealt with immense wildfires last year. She put Louie in touch with Juan Cereno, who managed the Tsilhqot’in’s emergency operations centre in 2017, and he rushed to Nadleh Whut’en territory.
With Cereno’s help, the band transformed its main building into an emergency centre, assigned people jobs and began stockpiling food for evacuees and cooking for band fire crews. The centre is now a streamlined operation, with a large gym where a group of Mexican firefighters ate dinner on Thursday night.
Miranda Louie, spokeswoman for the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, stands Thursday on the band’s territory as smoke from the Shovel Lake wildfire rising from the mountains in the far distance in Fort Fraser, B.C.