British Columbia

Evacuees prepare to return home 3 months after wildfire devastates Telegraph Creek

More than 250 wildfire evacuees from Telegraph Creek have been given the go-ahead to return home, after months of staying in hotels and with friends and family across B.C and Yukon.

Fire damage to Tahltan structures was worst suffered by any First Nation in Canadian history, minister says

The Tahltan Nation and the community of Telegraph Creek faced one of the worst wildfires in B.C. history in August 2018. (Minister Jane Philpott )

More than 250 wildfire evacuees from Telegraph Creek have been given the go-ahead to return home, after months of staying in hotels and with friends and family across B.C and Yukon.

"I'm so relieved to have our people go home. It's been a heartbreaking experience," said Annita McPhee, a health and social support worker for evacuees in Terrace, B.C., and an evacuee herself.

In August, a wildfire estimated at 1,200 square kilometres in size ripped through the community and decimated the Tahltan Territory. On Aug. 5, all residents of Telegraph Creek were forced to evacuate their homes.

Evacuees will begin returning home on Nov. 15 with the hope of having everyone back in the community by Dec. 20, according to the Tahltan Emergency Operations Centre.

"This news came at a good time because our people were very depressed and lonely being away from home for so long," McPhee said.

While they waited to return home, community members stayed in hotels paid for by the Tahltan Emergency Operations centre and  Emergency Social Services, according to a statement from the Tahltan central government. Others stayed with family and friends.

Some community members also stayed in a closed-down motel in Dease Lake — around 100 kilometres north of Telegraph Creek — called Tanzilla, which owners reopened just for the evacuees. 

Determination to rebuild

The community of Telegraph Creek lost 21 homes, two businesses and several community buildings to wildfires.

More than 160 structures were destroyed in the region, including historical structures and fish camps.

In August, wildfires decimated the Tahltan Territory, with all residents of Telegraph Creek forced to evacuate their homes. The community lost several homes, businesses and community buildings to a huge 1,200-square kilometre blaze. (Minister Jane Philpott )

Since the fire danger has passed, homes have been cleaned of smoke damage and refurbished so they are safe to return to. In addition, about eight mobile homes were brought into Telegraph Creek for residents who lost their homes.

Canada's minister of Indigenous services visited the region last month and says the Tahltan Nation incurred the worst structural damage caused by wildfires of any First Nations community in recorded Canadian history.

"The community has been devastated by the incredible, heartbreaking loss," Jane Philpott told the CBC.

"But they have come together as a community in a strong way and they are absolutely determined to rebuild," she added.

Fixing a 'disjointed' system

Some First Nations leaders criticized the federal and provincial governments for lagging in communication and emergency management co-ordination during the 2017 and 2018 B.C. summer wildfires.

"A lot of these fires could have been dealt with more efficiently and effectively with adequate resources and emergency plans, but they were not invested in," said McPhee.

The government of B.C. is responsible for regional districts but gives the federal government authority for First Nations.

Band councils, based on advice from the provincial wildfire service and regional districts, are responsible for declaring their own evacuation orders and alerts for members on reserve land.

Some Indigenous leaders have called it a disjointed system that has hampered them in the wildfire fight.

The South Stikine River fire just east of Telegraph Creek, B.C. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

In 2017, Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit called on the federal government to create a $200-million emergency preparedness and response fund for Indigenous communities in the province. 

Philpott says her government recognizes the communication problems and is working toward a solution.

In a news release Rick Mclean, the chief of the Tahltan band said  "I also cannot say enough good things about Minister Philpott and her staff for all the support we have received from the Federal Government."

"We genuinely appreciate the Minister's effort to come to our territory and visit Telegraph Creek to witness the devastation first hand. It really wouldn't have been possible to begin re-entry on Nov. 15 without our partnership with the Federal Government, who really stepped up to help meet our communities needs and get our people home as soon as possible," he added. 

With First Nations and the province, the federal government is currently helping develop a tripartite agreement to deal with communication gaps and to ensure respect for First Nations rights, minister Philpott said.

She added that First Nations traditional knowledge — like the practice of controlled burns, for example — will be taken into consideration.

Earlier this month the B.C. government released a new plan to improve emergency management with a large focus on working with First Nations communities.

For McPhee, that's paramount.

"I think these forest fires may unfortunately be part of our new norm and that is scary," McPhee said.

"We need to prevent forest fires in the future with proper emergency plans and resources for training and fighting fires."


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?