By: Zoe Zhang
According to government officials, hundreds of wildfires caused by climate change have destroyed more than 47,000 square miles of forest since May and have displaced around 25,000 Indigenous people from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
The fires have contributed to the thick smoke that has covered large parts of the United States and caused warnings about dangerously high levels of smoke pollution along the Eastern Seaboard in early June.
Indigenous populations have been hit particularly hard by the fires because they depend on forests for food. They also live in isolated, sparsely populated areas that are not firefighting priority. The fires have also caused immense damage to Indigenous communities by impacting the forest ecology and their cultural heritage. Forests are particularly important to Indigenous people because they rely on hunting for food.
Before evacuation orders were issued, residents attempted to leave along the Billy Diamond Highway, but they ran into flames and smoke that forced them to turn back.
“I honestly wasn't sure we’d make it out,” said a member of the Cree nation in Nemaska, Joshua Iserhoff. He was forced to turn back with his wife and children, but eventually found another way out.
Iserhoff described the drive as a “traumatic experience,” claiming that “the wind was so ferocious it almost picked up the vehicle.”
While no one has been killed by the wildfires, full or partial evacuation orders were in place in July for eight of the nine Cree settlements in Quebec, with a combined population of around 21,000.
Evacuations from Indigenous people have lasted weeks, separating some families across hundreds of miles and forcing evacuees to sleep in hotels and gyms. Some were transported by commercial airliners or Canadian Royal Air Force helicopters. Older people, young children, and people with health concerns were taken away by bus in some Cree communities.
79-year-old William Wapachee, who had lung cancer, was on an 11-hour bus ride to Quebec City when he had trouble breathing. He claimed that he had “inhaled too much of that smoke,” and was transported to a hospital near the city.
“I’ve never seen that level of evacuation in Cree Nation, simultaneous communities all at once,” said Mandy Gull-Masty, grand chief of the Cree Nation. Ms Gull-Masty was forced to leave Waswanipi, an Indigenous community in northern Quebec along with 1,000 other residents because of wildfires.
The fire chief in Nemaska, Kurtis Black, was recently observing firefighters dousing hot spots with water along a gravel road leading to the Billy Highway.
“I don’t think these fires will stop until everything is burned,” Mr. Black said. “These fires are here to stay until fall gets here — or the snow.”