Canada Is Ravaged by Fire. No One Has Paid More Dearly Than Indigenous People.
By: Zimo Zhu
In early July a savage wildfire in dry conditions destroyed large patches of spruce trees along with tourist spots and cabins. It also cut off travel to isolated groups of indigenous people over the only paved 370 mile road; there is also little to no cell reception.
The country’s fire situation has forced tens of thousands of indigenous people to flee their homes and the forests they rely on.
Before they were ordered to evacuate, residents who tried to leave using the Billy Diamond Highway as the road is called, saw black smoke and flames that made the afternoon look like midnight.
“I honestly wasn’t sure we’d make it out,” said Joshua Iserhoff, 45, a member of the Cree nation of Nemaska “The wind was so ferocious it almost picked up the vehicle,” he said, calling the drive a “traumatic experience.”
The consistency and intensity of the fires linked to global warming have set records for the land area burned. As on July 28th there were more than 1,000 fires and more than 600 out of control. Evacuations have lasted for weeks already with families separated over hundreds of miles sleeping in hotels and gyms.
Since May, wildfires in Canada have burned 47,000 miles of forests and devastated more than 25,000 indigenous residents. A big toll is taken on the indigenous because their homes are on the frontline of the blazes and considered a sparsely populated area and not the main focus of the firefighters.
In July 8 out of the 9 Cree communities Quebec with a population of about 21,000 are either under total or partial evacuation some were being airlifted while the old, young children, and diseased are being taken out by bus on gravel roads.
On the 11 hour trip to Quebec city William Wapachee who has lung cancer and is 79 this year started coughing and had trouble breathing. Before reaching the city he was taken by an ambulance to a hospital where he received fresh air and oxygen.
“I inhaled too much of that smoke,” Mr. Wapachee said.
“Before, if we had fire, it was only in one place,” he added. “Now it seems to be a fire here, a fire there, fire everywhere.”
“I’ve never seen that level of evacuation in Cree Nation, simultaneous communities all at once,” said Mandy Gull-Masty, “Never has that happened before.”
While the fire has not yet claimed any lives yet it has done unfathomable damage to the forest's ecology, greatly disrupting a way of life that relies on hunting and fishing.
Kurtis Black, the fire chief in Nemaska, was recently surveying firefighters putting out hotspots on a gravel path that leads to the Billy Diamond highway.
“I don’t think these fires will stop until everything is burned,” Kurtis said. “These fires are here to stay until fall gets here — or the snow.”
“Our territory doesn’t have a super high population, and we don’t have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be protected,” Ms. Gull-Masty said. “But for us, our territory is our infrastructure.”
Diane Amy Tanoush recorded a video as she and other Indigenous people loaded belongings and got ready to take the long boat trip away to a landing on the other side of the lake.
“It’s starting to get dark,” she said.
“This is our fifth time evacuating.”