In Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw First Nation, where last summer fires in B.C. destroyed homes and buildings, elders are smiling and laughing again.

That’s what stood out most for Kukpi7 (Chief) James Tomma following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for this community last week. The ceremony celebrated a new subdivision that will house community members who lost their homes in August in the Bush Creek East wildfire.

Dancing Fawn II is the newest subdivision to spring up after the fire. It is one of four that will house community members until more permanent residences are built, what Tomma calls “forever builds.” Tomma intends to have everyone who lost their homes back in the community by mid-June.

Tomma has promised Skwlāx that he will be the last community member to close the door of his forever home behind him.

Splatsin Coun. Vikki Tronson speaks while Kukpi7 Tomma is given gifts. Photo courtesy of Larry Read

The August fire destroyed 34 structures. The devastating blaze, written about by Canada’s National Observer, that forced Skwlāx residents to flee was one of 93 evacuations that took place across 82 Indigenous communities.

In the early days of the rebuild in November, community members spoke about the tragedy of losing medicines and ceremonial possessions and the devastation the fire wreaked on the local animals and forests.

However, Skwlāx had a path forward. Tomma credits the community’s economic engines, which include a golf course, restaurant and spa that reopened a few weeks ago. The community also owns several industries, including a gravel pit and other construction companies. Having those resources helps, said Tomma, noting he gets calls from other First Nations leaders asking how they are moving so fast.

“We had a lot of people with the skills and tools in place. We didn't have to go searching for them, they were already employed,” he said.

“Seeing what we had taken for granted: green trees and everything,” he said. “Now it's just clear-cut, very stark and brutal.” #Climate #Wildfire

Tomma said he is indebted to his former councillor Wes Francois, whose team spearheaded the rebuild. Tomma calls the rapid housing initiative after the fire Francois’ “crown jewel of accomplishment.”

What Tomma describes is what Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and other policy types call capacity: the resources and infrastructure to quickly surmount government and private industry hurdles to build again.

Hajdu was at the ribbon-cutting ceremony alongside Tomma and the rest of Skwlāx. There’s now a sense of hope in the First Nation with the first signs of renewal, she said.

“Kukpi7 Tomma was very proud of the work that his community had done,” she said. “He kept saying it wasn't him, it was the entire community.”

However, change is still difficult in Skwlāx. Elders and the rest of the people are shocked by the clearcut-like landscape, Tomma explained. The First Nation is racing to log the once-lush forest they lived in. The trees are burned matchsticks and will soon become useless for the market unless the First Nation acts in the forthcoming months.

“Seeing what we had taken for granted: green trees and everything,” he said. “Now it's just clear-cut, very stark and brutal.”

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu speaks with Lytton First Nation band members. Photo submitted

The day before her visit to Skwlāx, Hajdu was in Lytton First Nation, a community that lost 39 houses to a 2021 wildfire. The community will receive $1.3 million to accelerate 175 new homes, including 20 in the next three years, Hajdu announced last week.

Hajdu also applauded the archeology work in Lytton for identifying the ancestral burial grounds on which the reserve was built, she told Canada’s National Observer. The fire enabled the archeology exploration to happen and led to findings of where ancestors lay. The First Nation is also working on restoring its ancestral name, Hajdu said.

Ottawa is now preparing for this year’s wildfire season, which experts in the federal government predict will be severe. Ottawa is pointing to drought conditions and higher-than-normal temperatures across the country. Ottawa has hired more emergency management co-ordinators in Alberta and has developed an Indigenous Emergency Management Working Group.

In Skwlāx, Tomma isn’t that worried about the upcoming fire season.

“There is some trepidation about it, but to be blunt and brutal about it, there is nothing left on our reserve to burn.”