As It Happens

We must prepare for wildfires, not just react to them, urges First Nation councillor

Without a better wildfire management plan, Little Grand Rapids, Man., Coun. Blair Owen worries his community will be “on constant standby to evacuate” for the foreseeable future.

Blair Owen of Little Grand Rapids in Manitoba asks: 'Is this what our future is going to look like?'

A forest fire is pictured in Bloodvein First Nation, one of seven communities in Manitoba that were without power on Wednesday because wildfires have affected the hydro lines. (Submitted by Percy Swain)

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Without a better wildfire management plan, Blair Owen worries his community will be "on constant standby to evacuate" for the foreseeable future.

Owen is a councillor for Little Grand Rapids First Nation, one of four First Nations in Manitoba evacuated this week as smoke billows in from wildfires burning on the Ontario border. 

The federal government announced Tuesday it's sending 470 Canadian Armed Forces members to Manitoba and British Columbia to help fight the hundreds of fires burning in both provinces. 

But Owen says it's time to be proactive about forest fires, especially when climate change means these events may become more frequent and intense.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner from Selkirk, Man. Here is part of their conversation. 

Coun. Owen, how are you and other members of the Little Grand Rapids First Nation holding up today?

I think everybody is doing the best they can given the circumstances that we're in right now. People are worried. People are wondering what's going on. 

How many people from your community have been evacuated, and where have they gone?

I don't have a concrete number, but probably 98 per cent of the community has been evacuated, and everyone's been evacuated to Winnipeg.

Have they all found places to stay?

Yes, actually, the Red Cross has been helping with the evacuation and they've been fantastic. They've been very helpful throughout this whole situation. Our members are scattered all over different hotels in Winnipeg, but again, it's just the situation we're in right now.

Coun. Blair Owen snapped these shots of Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Man., on Sunday morning, left, when the air was clear, and Sunday evening, right, when the sky was tinted orange and filled with wildfire smoke. (Submitted by Blair Owen)

Can you tell me how bad things were in Little Grand Rapids before you were forced to leave?

The smoke is what's the problem. The surrounding area, like the whole east side of Lake Winnipeg ... is on fire right now. And these fires have just been left to grow, and it's making life difficult for all right now.

What impact is all that smoke having on people? 

It's causing anxiety, frustration.

Why are these fires being allowed to burn? I was talking with our local resource department and I'm being told there's no resources available to fight these fires.

So you use the words they're being "allowed to burn." [Do] you think there's been a decision not to try to fight these fires?

That's my personal opinion, because I'm being told there's not enough aircraft or firefighters to be sent to deal with these fires. And I know a few years back, the provincial government decided to go and privatize our entire water bomber fleet for the province. So now is this the effect? 

Owen is a councillor for Little Grand Rapids First Nation in Manitoba, one of several communities in the province that have been forced to evacuate as wildfires burn along the Ontario border. (Submitted by Blair Owen)

There are 120 Canadian Armed Forces personnel headed to Manitoba to help with these fires. Does that bring you any comfort?

A little bit. But ... how come we didn't do this two, three weeks ago? Why does the situation have to deteriorate to this?

My community, Little Grand Rapids, they've gone through this three years ago where we had to evacuate. Now, here we are again doing it.

I think after the situation is settled and we get these fires out, there needs to be a conversation with all parties that need to be involved. Like, what can we do to mitigate so this doesn't happen as frequently?

What ideas do you have on that front?

Have the resources available when we know firefighting season is coming. Let's be on standby, be prepared, not wait until things deteriorate [to] where we have to evacuate our communities.

And it's not just Little Grand Rapids that's been evacuated. There's our neighbour to the north of us, Pauingassi First Nation has been evacuated. Now Bloodvein First Nation's being evacuated. Berens River First Nation is being evacuated.

If we know that we're going to have a dry season, let's put the resources in place so we don't have to evacuate our communities.

Several First Nations evacuated by fires in Manitoba, Ontario

The National

9 days ago
2:02
Wildfires in northwestern Manitoba and northern Ontario have forced several remote First Nations communities to evacuate as smoke from the fires waft over both provinces. 2:02

There are hundreds of wildfires burning right across this country right now. As you point out, your community is one of many First Nations in Manitoba and in Ontario that have been forced to evacuate. What do you make of the scale of this problem this summer?

Maybe this is climate change. Is this what climate change is going to look like? Is this what our future is going to look like going forward?

We need to have these conversations. We can't just sit and wait for something to happen and then this is the course of action that has to be taken.

Why are the conversations not happening, in your view? You say your community was damaged by wildfires in 2018, and in 2019 there was an evacuation because of smoke. So why didn't the conversations happen then?

That's a very good question. I'm glad you asked that.

It could just be ... [that] all parties involved are just used to being reactive rather than proactive. And then as soon as you start talking about money, that's where the conversation usually stops.

But evacuations are expensive as well, aren't they?

Yes, they are. So what would be a better use of resources? To have a plan in place so we can tackle the problem when it first starts? Or just wait until we get into the situation where we are now, and then spend money that way?

I honestly believe after this situation is resolved, there needs to be a serious discussion on forest fire management for the future.

I hear the frustration in your voice.

Oh, yes, it's very frustrating. It's very frustrating because ... it's not just Little Grand Rapids members — it's all First Nations that are affected by these fires. People don't want to leave their homes. They want to stay home.

The smoke right now, for instance, it's covering all of Western Canada, as you know. Are we evacuating our cities? No. So why should we have to evacuate our First Nations communities? Why do we have to let this situation deteriorate? All questions that I would like to see answered in the future.

How do you see the next few weeks unfolding for you and other members of your community?

It's going to be day-to-day right now. I can't really say. Let's just hope we have rain come. And with these Canadian Forces members that are coming to assist us, let's hope that we can get these fires under control and have our members return home so they can have their normal lives resumed. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Corrections

  • In previous version of this story, a photo of a wildfire was incorrectly identified as Berens River First Nation. In fact, the photo in question shows a wildfire in Bloodvein First Nation.
    Jul 22, 2021 4:31 PM ET

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