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Canada Wildfires Have Cost Indigenous People Dearly

By: Bryan Tan

Dry conditions in early July have led to a ruthless wildfire, destroying tourist camps and indigenous peoples’ territory, and devastating many by cutting off a 370-mile stretch of highway from any internet—no GPS and no communication.

Before officials sent the evacuation signal, residents found fire and smoke along the Billy Diamond Highway, where the fire was raging. Many thought they were trapped there, in the flames. Most called it a traumatic experience.

“The wind was so ferocious it almost picked up the vehicle,” said Joshua Iserhoff, a member of the Cree nation of Nemaska who was one of many forced to turn back with their families, and who, like other residents, eventually found another way out.

So far, the damage is severe: 47,000 square miles of forest has been decimated, and more than 25,000 indigenous residents have been displaced. Canada’s Department of Indigenous Services has already paid $55 million to the indigenous groups affected by wildfires. Many have fled from the fire itself, and the bad air quality caused by the smoke.

On the way from Nemaska to Quebec City, 79-year-old William Wapachee, started wheezing and had trouble breathing. He was taken to the hospital shortly, where he received adequate amounts of oxygen.

“I inhaled too much of that smoke,” he said.

At first, the fire was localized in one place. “But now it’s everywhere,” Mr. Wamachee says.

The indigenous peoples’ territory doesn’t have a very high population, and not much infrastructure to defend from the fire. But to them, the forest is their infrastructure.

A big rainstorm diminished the fire for a few days, and many evacuees have traveled back to their origin, thinking that the fire has been extinguished. But after a short while, it roared back up, the sky lit a strange yellow and orange.

Many indigenous people are loading their bags and preparing to abort the fire-affected places. “This is our fifth time evacuating,” said Diane Amy Tanoush, packing up her possessions.

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