The wildfire warriors of Tl'etinqox

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When a wildfire broke out near his remote B.C. community last summer, Tl'etinqox First Nation Chief Joe Alphonse and his community refused to leave.

Despite an evacuation order in the Chilcotin region, he decided to stay and defend his community against a summer of massive wildfires.

The nation had a firefighting plan in place. They stuck with it, even after the RCMP threatened to order the Ministry for Children and Families to remove the children.

“Why is it that at just the slightest provocation, they will take our kids away?” Chief Alphonse asked, during a recent interview with National Observer. “I would have been willing to go to jail for that. We’re making a stand. We want to look after ourselves and we don’t want to depend on anybody.”

Photo of young boy at celebration in Anaham, B.C., after the community responded to wildfires in 2017

The 2,000-member band had been evacuated during the wildfires of 2009 and 2010. This time, they began moving into action themselves as the wildfire neared their homes. Previous evacuations had been too distressing.

“Our members were staying in gymnasiums on cots. It was just like residential school.”

They weren't willing to repeat the experience.

Sign outside Anaham, B.C., an Indigenous community, which rallied to fight wildfires in 2017. Photo by Trevor Mack
Chapter 1

"We've all grown up fighting fires"

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“Since 2010, we have probably trained 400 firefighters. They all have equivalent training to any other firefighter you’re going to find anywhere in British Columbia,” Chief Alphonse said. “We’ve all grown up fighting fires. It’s second nature to us.”

Photo by Trevor Mack

The band had access to heavy equipment and heavy equipment operators, thanks to its logging operation.

The fire eventually came within a quarter kilometre of the community, which is about 100 kilometres west of Williams Lake.

“It jumped the river three times. We could see the flames every night,” Chief Alphonse said. “At night, with all the fires around our community, it was like looking at a city. There were lights everywhere.”

Citizens were on high alert for a knock on the door in the middle of the night, ready to get up and go.

"We did not go through it without thinking it through," said Tl’etinqox councillor George Mack. He said the evacuation list was updated two months before the fire, and that nurses and first responders were on hand to help.

“I will put my crew up against any crew in British Columbia and I guarantee you my crew will come out on top. We grew up in that culture.”

Photo by Trevor Mack

Chapter 2

"We will be okay"

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“We were the first First Nations community in Canada to say no to an evacuation order,” Chief Alphonse said. An evacuation order doesn’t apply to reserve land unless the chief and council sign a band council resolution, he explained.

After the RCMP threatened the chief with taking the children away, he said he told them their evacuation order didn’t apply. Finally, a delegation of RCMP officers apologized for the confrontation.

Emergency Management BC (EMBC) agreed that band councils and local governments are the lead authority for evacuation orders and alerts in their own communities.

"The province through EMBC recommends that local authorities base recommendations for evacuation orders and alerts on the best scientific and technical subject matter expertise available," Emergency Management BC wrote in response to questions from National Observer.

EMBC and the BC Wildfire Service encourage all communities to issue evacuation orders when advised to do so, but they also recognize that evacuating is difficult and emotional, according to a fact sheet published for First Nations on wildfires by the {rovince of British Columbia.

Chief Alphonse says his people want to look after themselves.

“We don’t want to be a burden to anyone. We are proud people. Don’t worry about us. We will be okay,” he said.

Chapter 3

"We've lived among fires"

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Now the band is left with three-quarters of its territory burned up. Chief Alphonse says the first thing they will do is create a plan.

“What we’ve learned from the two fires last summer that affected our community in such a big way is that it is the mismanagement of the BC Forest Service since contact that has caused this situation,” Chief Alphonse said. “We have vowed that we will never allow that to happen. We have to get involved. We live here. We’re not going anywhere.”

Tl'etinqox councillor George Mack, who helped organize the wildfire response for his community in Anaham. Photo by Trevor Mack.

(The BC Forest Service is the former name for a ministry that is now called the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development).

Leafy trees like the white aspen, which are not a commercial crop, but which serve as a natural fire guard, have been cleared out of the forest, he said.

“In a natural setting, there is a purpose for those trees. They’re the best fire-fighting agent we have out there,” Chief Alphonse said.

The provincial government has committed $140 million to prevent future forest fires by cleaning out fuels like dead trees and smaller live trees, but some say the money won't be enough to protect British Columbia from the next big burn.

Lori Daniels, a forest ecology professor at the University of British Columbia, estimates it will take about $3.5 billion to protect the highest-risk areas of the province in years to come.

She said dry forests in B.C. used to burn about once every 30 years or so, but now most wildfires are suppressed quickly, which means large swaths of forests mature at the same time. This, she said, allowed the mountain pine beetle to thrive, which has left a lot of dead trees behind to serve as fuel for forest fires.

“We also have building evidence — that is consistent with oral history from our First Nations — that they traditionally and culturally used fires,” Daniels says. “They were burning these landscapes for millennia to generate crops, to create safe places for their villages, to cultivate food, to create forage for game.

He said his people have always worked with fire to manage the forest.

“We’ve lived among fires – it’s part of who we are as Chilcotin,” Chief Alphonse said. “Every fall and early spring, we used to always manage the forest and we managed it in such a way that when a non-Aboriginal person first arrived, they said it was untouched.”

In December, the province announced a $900,000 review of B.C.'s 2017 fire and flood season, headed by former Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott and First Nations Chief Maureen Chapman.

Meanwhile, another summer approaches.

Photo of wildfire by Becka Rosette. All other visuals by Trevor Mack.

First Nations Forward is being produced in collaboration with the Real Estate Foundation of BC, I-SEA, Vancouver Foundation, McConnell Foundation, Vancity, Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Willow Grove Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation. National Observer retains full and final editorial control over the reporting process.