‘An emo­tional time’

A B.C. First Na­tion fights to save their com­mu­nity from a wild­fire

The Western Star - - CANADA - BY LAURA KANE

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.

CP PHOTO

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.

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