British Columbia

First Nations in B.C. call for more control over firefighting, federal funding

First Nations in the path of B.C.'s forests fires say to protect their communities they need equal funding and recognition of their expertise.

Emergency Management B.C. says extra funding and First Nations liaisons have been put in place

Residents of Ashcroft Indian Band reserve return to rubble on July 13, after wildfire destroys 12 of 32 homes in community. The fire erupted July 6 in the close-knit First Nation community of 76 people, located less than a 100 km away from Kamloops. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

First Nations in the path of British Columbia's forests fires say to protect their communities they need equal funding and recognition of their expertise that is granted to other emergency response organizations.

The Assembly of First Nations adopted a resolution at its annual meeting last week in Regina calling for an end to jurisdictional disputes between different levels of government that disrupt Indigenous communities' ability to respond to the recent fires in their own backyards.

Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band said First Nations must be more actively involved in negotiating agreements to ensure Indigenous firefighters and other service providers get the same recognition as regional and provincial authorities.

"They are front line and they need to be recognized the same as any other firefighters and also resourced properly," she said.

The problem stems from a history of governments developing emergency plans and setting forest management regulations without consulting First Nations, Wilson said.

"A lot of these old agreements have never had our involvement," she said.

"If the discussion and those changes could occur, they'll benefit everyone because the bottom line is we're protecting the people and protecting the land."

Ashcroft Indian Band Reserve resident Gary Classen wrestled the fire that swept through his community for four and a half hours. His only defence was a garden hose and a sprinkler. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

$30 million for emergency services

A new 10-year agreement by the B.C. and federal governments took effect April 1 earmarking $30 million to improve the delivery of emergency management support services on reserves.

Robert Turner of Emergency Management B.C. said the agreement, which had the support of the First Nations Leadership Council, is improving emergency management on reserves by providing more resources for planning, training and public education.

"There's been a great deal of effort to ensure First Nation communities are fully engaged in the wildfire context," he said in an interview.

Darin Minnabarriet ties a garbage bag after emptying his freezer at his house that survived a wildfire on the Ashcroft First Nation, near Ashcroft, B.C., July 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Those efforts include having First Nations liaisons working at provincial and regional emergency operations centres and having community leaders take part in daily phone calls that are coordinating response efforts.

Speaking to the Assembly of First Nations last week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he was concerned by the stories he heard about "confusion and turmoil" between governments and First Nations during the B.C. wildfire crisis.

"Such a state of affairs is simply unacceptable. We need to have protocols discussed and in place well in advance, so that when disasters of this kind happen, there is an absolutely seamless and totally effective response capacity," Goodale said, committing to more discussion with First Nations.

Call for equitable funding

Chief Joe Alphonse of the Tl'etinqox First Nation said he was among those who experienced problems when his community, about 100 kilometres west of Williams Lake, decided not to issue an evacuation order unlike neighbouring areas.

The community struggled with evacuations in the past and didn't want to go through it again, Alphonse said, adding they have invested in the equipment, trained firefighters and planning to protect their homes and property.

Alphonse said the effort saved about 25 buildings that would have been near impossible to replace.

Wildfires have been encroaching on communities across B.C. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Despite the victory, he said flooding near the community earlier this year and the recent fires are taking a toll.

Alphonse said he wants to see a more equitable funding scheme for disasters from government that shows First Nations are taken seriously in the same way as the BC Wildfire Service and other agencies.

The process of evacuation could also change to be more mindful of Indigenous people who don't feel comfortable staying in large urban centres or eating foreign food that reminds them of the residential school system, Alphonse said.

Cariboo Regional District Chairman Al Richmond said his group has worked closely with First Nations including Alphonse offering them information and expertise about the fires, as well as buses if they choose to leave.

Richmond added a challenge for everyone this season was the unusual number of fires starting and spreading quickly at once, leaving little time for public education as evacuation alerts quickly upgraded to orders.

With files from Jennifer Graham