After being evacuated in both 2009 and 2010 the Tsilhqot’in National Government says they were not letting themselves become victim to disaster.
Chief Joe Alphonse says that after the 2010 evacuation the community decided that they would never do it again and took it in to their own hands to prepare themselves and their members for the next wildfire threat.
Alphonse says evacuations are stressful for everyone, but for indigenous communities especially. When these communities are evacuated, the members are forced to go to urban centres, eat food they are not accustom to and wait restlessly for updates about their land. Elders are the ones who are hardest hit during evacuations, especially those who don’t speak English.
This led the Tsilhqot’in National Government to provide firefighter training to its members, some of which have excelled so much they are now instructors themselves. That, topped with agreements from heavy equipment companies and some fire trucks of their own, the Tsilhqot’in Nation has created their own fire fighting crew.
This year, they decided to stay and fight for their community instead of being left in the dark letting emergency crews defend their land. Chief Alphonse is proud of the way his community banded together, tackled the fire and showed what they are capable of.
He says some members in the community amazed him and rose to the occasion without a hesitation, and the only issues he had with personnel were the government officials who continued to come in, take resources away from the fight, and continuously made the community reassure them that they know what they’re doing.
Chief Alphonse says the way emergency evacuations are set up for First Nation communities makes it even harder on them. He would like to see the creation of an emergency response centre and evacuation centre for Indigenous people who live in rural areas. The centre would allow for First Nations to take care of their own people, in a culturally appropriate manner, allowing them to eat traditional foods and maintain their way of life.
First Nation communities affected by wildfire have to issue reports, receipts and monitor where every dime of their money goes in order to be reimbursed by Indigenous and Northern Affairs, whereas the BC wildfire service can allot substantial amounts of money, without a cap, and be reimbursed without the constant hurdles.
Chief Alphonse says that he would like this whole system revamped to allow First Nation communities to be part of the service, provide their own trained crews who know their land better than foreigners from out of country, and allow these services to be paid by the federal government without all the red tape and hurdles they currently have to go through.
Alphonse says services like these can improve the quality of life in first nation communities, give them more jobs and allow them to be independent and in control of their own resources.
He says his community members are firefighters who deal with all the danger of wildfires and don’t get paid. Then when provincial crews come in to their community, these same firefighters get told to sit down and treated like they are uneducated although they have gone through extensive accredited training. He notes that because of these dedicated people, structures around their community are still standing after winds pushed the fire on the community this month.
Now they have pushed the wildfire threat away and have it mostly contained on their side with other fires in the area heading the opposite direction. Their communities remain intact and their people, although tired and lacking sufficient resources, have protected their land.
Once the wildfire threat subsides, the Tsilhqot’in National Government intends on pursuing the concept of a First Nations fire centre and evacuation centre and intend on presenting a proposal to the new NDP government.