First Nations evade evacuation orders, fight fires as weather conditions improve

By The Canadian Press
July 12, 2017 - 7:30pm

ALEXIS CREEK, B.C. — Emergency officials and police are urging British Columbia residents to respect evacuation orders ahead of fast-moving wildfires, but some First Nations are standing their ground, successfully protecting their homes and property.

The chief of the Tl’etinqox First Nation said RCMP officers told them to leave or risk having their children taken away, instead they erected a fire boundary and prepared to fight.

“We are generation after generation that continue to live in a fire zone. This is not new to us,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, whose community is about 100 kilometres west of Williams Lake. “We feel this is the safest place for our community members to be.”

There are about 1,000 residents on the reserve, but Alphonse said only about 300 stayed to fight the fires.

BC Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek said there has been a slight reprieve in the weather forecast with some rain expected, bringing relief to the windy, hot and dry conditions fuelling about 200 fires and displacing more than 14,000 people.

RELATED VIDEO: Noon wildfire update (July 12th)

With improved conditions, Alphonse said he finally had a moment Wednesday to reflect on the three days of fire fighting without the aid of power or telephone service. 

He said a conversation with Mounties, who told them to evacuate last weekend, quickly became heated.

As chief, he said his signature is required to enforce the evacuation order on the reserve, which he chose not to authorize.

Many in the community wanted to stay behind to fight, they have trained firefighters, access to heavy equipment and emergency plans to evacuate if they lost the battle with the fire, he said.

Alphonse said an officer then threatened to have the Ministry of Children and Family Services “remove all the children.”

Tempers flared and Alphonse said he suggested their own roadblocks would keep the Mounties out and if that didn’t work, perhaps warning shots above their heads would.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau said in a statement Wednesday, “As far as the comments made by Chief Alphonse, we do not believe the comments made are reflective of the recent and continued meetings and conversations we have had with the chief.”

She said officers will not force people to evacuate who are “mentally competent and have been fully informed of the imminent risks.”

But she said if there are children under 19 risk, police are required to move the child to a safe location.

Alphonse disagrees that officers were trying to protect their children.

“The safest place for our kids is here with their families under the supervision of the leadership of this community and if they question that they are telling me that I’m inadequate and that I’m not qualified.”

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs issued a news release Wednesday saying Indigenous Peoples have a fundamental right to make decisions about protecting and defending their safety, health and well-being of their community.

“If and when houses and band infrastructure are lost to these fires, it will take years to rebuild and we fear in many instances the homes and infrastructure may never be built,” said union Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has not immediately available to respond to a request for comment. 

B.C. Forest Minister John Rustad also didn’t responded to media requests but told radio station CHNL that they were concerned about the situation.

“People are staying behind, they want to fight for their homes. That poses a very serious problem. We know these fires can be very, very volatile and can change at a moments notice,” Rustad said.

Ultimately, Alphonse said staying was the right decision that saved at least 10 homes.

The chief of the Bonaparte Indian Band north of Ashcroft said they also defied an evacuation order over the weekend and successfully stopped flames from overrunning their reserve.

“My community has some really skilled firefighters, like a lot of First Nations reserves, and they came together and they stopped that wildfire from wiping out that whole community,” Chief Ryan Day said in an interview.

He said 60 of the band’s 280 members stayed to fight the fire.

The community doesn’t have a firehall, a new water reservoir hasn’t been connected to their main supply yet and they don’t have a formal emergency response plan in place.

But Day said the experience of the trained forest firefighters in his community and access to heavy equipment contributed to their success.

“We weren’t prepared for it of course because it happened in a blink of an eye, but we snapped into action and everyone did their part,” he said.

Bob Turner with of Emergency Management BC said the province remains prepared for the possibility of mass evacuations and Canadian Armed Forces aircraft and helicopters are also standing by in case airlifts are necessary.  Crews took advantage of calmer conditions Wednesday to make progress on fire guards near Williams Lake, where 10,000 people remain on evacuation alert.

Turner said the province’s priority is public safety and he encourages people to heed evacuation orders when they are issued.

— By Linda Givetash in Vancouver

The Canadian Press

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