First Nations are rallying as wildfires ravage large swathes of British Columbia. The blazes have destroyed homes on several reserves, and many indigenous people have refused to be evacuated, choosing instead to stay and fight the flames. The province has declared a state of emergency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged federal resources, and First Nations chiefs called for a shutdown of the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline.
With several First Nation communities under states of emergency or on evacuation alerts, indigenous leaders supported the decisions of many reserve residents to stay and try to protect their homes rather than leave and risk losing everything. Tsilhqot’in communities reported that wildfires threatened at least four of their six communities: Yunesit’in (Stone), Tl’etinqox (Anaham), ?Esdilagh (Alexandria), and Tl’esqox (Toosey).
“Many Tsilhqot’in members have been evacuated to the Tsilhqot’in communities of Xeni Gwet’in (Nemiah) and Tsi Deldel (Alexis Creek), and Williams Lake, Quesnel and Prince George,” the Tsilhqot’in said in a media release on July 10. “Some of the communities, including Tl’etinqox and Tsi Deldel, are without power, water and phone. Food, water, fuel and medicine are in short supply. The Tsilhqot’in National Government continues to provide support despite challenges posed by road closures.”
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Between 250 and 300 people stayed behind to fight the fires, said Chief Joe Alphonse, Chief of Tl’etinqox and Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, in a statement. They were armed with heavy equipment and the determination to save the 120 homes in the community.
“Tl’etinqox experienced evacuations twice before, and leaving the community caused even more stress and grief,” Alphonse said in a statement. “The Tsilhqot’in Nation is in a state of emergency–but we won’t leave without a fight. These fires are big and unpredictable. Our able-bodied volunteers have stayed and are dedicated to saving our communities. Our brave men and women are doing a great job.”
Most of the homes on the Ashcroft Indian Reserve west of Kamloops, British Columbia, had burned to the ground, reported the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). By last Sunday evening July 6, more than more than 7,000 people had been ordered to evacuate, APTN reported, given the more than 220 fires scorching more than 56,000 acres.
While B.C. Forests Minister John Rustad called the decision to stay and fight “troubling,” according to the Vancouver Sun, indigenous leaders voiced their approbation.
“The Union of BC Indian Chiefs totally supports the informed decisions of indigenous leadership and community members to stand and to fight to protect their communities,” stated Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, UBCIC President, in a statement. “If and when houses and band infrastructure are lost to these fires, it will take years to rebuild and we fear in many instances the homes and infrastructure may never be built. It is early on but already it is abundantly clear there is an urgent need to do an in-depth review of the disturbing gaps in communications, support, capacity and equipment with respect to Indigenous communities, BC’s Emergency Program Act and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.”
First Nations are also calling for the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline to be shut down both out of fear that it “poses a serious safety hazard” and because “the unprecedented increase in fires is evidence of global warming created, in part, by Alberta tar sands oil transported by Kinder Morgan,” said the Secwepemec (Shuswap) Nation, a group of 17 Native bands in south-central British Columbia, in a statement.
Help has been pledged, from the grassroots to the federal level.
“We want to be able to help as much as we can,” said Fort McMurray resident Stephanie Klaamas, who had helped organize a load of supplies, to CTV News. “And being through it, we know exactly what’s needed.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking from Rhode Island, announced the creation of a new ad hoc Cabinet committee that would “coordinate federal efforts to help the many communities affected by the wildfires raging through British Columbia,” according to a statement from his office.
“Our thoughts are with all British Columbians dealing with the devastating impacts of these wildfires,” Trudeau said in the statement. “Our new Cabinet committee will work hard to address both the immediate and long-term needs of all the families, communities and businesses affected. I would like to thank the first responders, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and all those working around the clock to help those affected by the wildfires.”