British Columbia

Defying evacuation orders and wildfires: First Nations in Northern B.C. try to protect their homes

They’re staying to protect their homes, despite evacuation orders, hoping Mother Nature will give them a break.

Members of several First Nations in northern B.C. defy orders, hoping Mother Nature will soon cut them a break

Miranda Louie is one of the members of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation who have remained to help protect their homes. She is helping with administration and communication. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

In the face of evacuation orders and encroaching wildfires, members of several First Nations in Northern B.C. are hanging on, hoping Mother Nature will soon cut them a break.

"My house is just below the mountain there, behind that church steeple," Miranda Louie says, standing on a wooden bridge over the Nautley River and pointing to a scattering of homes beyond an RCMP barricade

"I'm pretty worried, but I have faith in our firefighters and the guys helping to protect our homes. Now, the wind is picking up again and it makes us pretty concerned," she said.

"It's very important because this is our home. This is all we have. We don't have insurance like other people do."

Louie is one of several dozen residents of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation who have stayed behind to help protect their homes from the Shovel Lake wildfire.

There are several checkpoints to pass before getting onto the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation. Part of the community, which is threatened by the Shovel Lake wildfire, is under an evacuation order and part of it is under an evacuation alert. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

It's one of the largest wildfires in Northern B.C., and it continues to grow.

Thousands of people living in the area have been evacuated or put on evacuation alerts. A steady stream of water trucks stop to fill up in the river before heading back to the front lines.

Louie says their traditional territory is being ravaged by flames.

"That's our food. That's the way we feed our families in the winter, and it's all being burned right now," she said with a catch in her voice.

Aircraft in the area were grounded for several days this week, but the thick smoke cleared Thursday, allowing helicopters up again.

If it looks bad from the ground, it's even worse from the air.

Some of the flames from the Shovel Lake wildfire are as close as 200 metres to homes on the north shore of Fraser Lake. Crews are building fire guards to protect them. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

Crews are trying to save about 150 homes on the north shore of Fraser Lake. The flames are as close as 200 metres from some of the houses. There are about 300 firefighters on the line from as far away as Mexico and dozens of pieces of large equipment.

They are doing controlled burns to create fire guards to deprive the fire of fuel, said Mike Pritchard of the B.C. Wildfire Service.

"We're trying to keep moving forward and protect houses. Our biggest goal is to get people back," he said. "I think we're winning more than we're losing." 

Mike Pritchard is confident crews will be able to contain the Shovel Lake wildfire. He says there's been a good level of co-operation between all levels of government in the last week. (Warren Kay/CBC News)

Co-ordinated disaster plan needed

Grand Chief Edward John is here to see the damage. He says more needs to be done to plan ahead and prevent fires and to protect communities when they happen.

"What we're seeing is a very concrete example of climate change and the impacts and what is necessary for this country to support FN communities and other communities is to develop mitigation measures, to develop adaptation measures that would see communities weather the storm.

"Because we're talking not just fires. We're talking about flooding, other disasters we've seen in this province, in this country, and First Nations communities have been left in the margins," John said.

"Even though First Nations make up five per cent of the Canadian population, at least 50 per cent of all evacuees from disasters are First Nations, Aboriginal peoples. We are impacted in a greater way than other people, so we need to take measures, because we're going to see these fires into the future."

This is the second year in a row of devastating B.C. wildfires. It's why Noel Ketlow stayed behind to fight, despite the evacuation order.

"I am worried about my community. It's a big fire. it's scary. We have elders and children that have gone to safer places," he said.

"I'm glad we have all the help and resources we do now."

As the day ends, exhausted firefighters return to camp for dinner. It's been a long day, and they'll be at it again tomorrow.

Firefighters from as far away as Mexico are helping battle the Shovel Lake fire. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

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Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc