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Wildfire smoke closes access roads and prompts more evacuations

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 3, 2023

As relentless forest fires continued to blaze across Eeyou Istchee, access roads blocked by heavy smoke in mid-July forced at least five Cree communities to evacuate some of their members. 

“We saw everything evolving in the southern part of Eeyou Istchee in the last couple of weeks then other fires started in the north and impacted all of the coastal communities so nobody in Eeyou Istchee has been spared,” explained Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. 

Over 1,000 Crees were in Gatineau for the Every Child Matters hockey and broomball tournament before wildfire smoke blanketed several community access roads and major routes early in the week of July 10. With fires approaching the roads and smoke reducing visibility to almost zero, some returning to the territory were forced to turn back.  

While emergency teams were able to organize convoys for those heading north, the visibility was soon too bad to allow any road access. Emergency shelters were established in Matagami, Pikogan and a service centre at km 381 of the Billy Diamond Highway. 

“It was a scary experience,” said Betty Tomatuk. “At km 66 to 68 in Eastmain access road, we drove through a very big thick black smoke and at one point it looked like it was nighttime.” 

Eastmain declared a state of emergency July 13 and prepared for a full evacuation. Radisson also declared a local state of emergency on that day while Nemaska, Waskaganish and Wemindji evacuated their most vulnerable residents. Canadian Rangers were deployed to support departures as various levels of government worked to establish an “air bridge” for delivering essential goods and medical supplies. 

Four Chinook helicopters transported 344 Eastmain residents to Matagami on July 14, the most they had ever moved in one day, with more transported the following days. Eastmain animal control weren’t able to airlift the community’s pets as planned after military helicopters were called away for an urgent evacuation in Wemindji but kept them safely centralized in the arena.  

As the Billy Diamond Highway and several community access roads were restricted, an operational committee composed of regional stakeholders was established to ensure the safety and basic needs of impacted citizens. Chisasibi’s grocery shelves emptied, and gas was rationed while community members awaited a Hercules military plane to deliver necessary supplies. 

Smoky conditions that brought darkness at 5pm some days prompted the installation of safe air shelters at Chisasibi’s community banquet hall, auditorium and youth centre. With Air Creebec involved in several evacuations and supply deliveries, President Tanya Pash commended crews for their “phenomenal effort” and volunteering overtime.  

On July 16, the first cohort of auxiliary firefighters from Waswanipi and Ouje-Bougoumou completed basic training in Mont-Tremblant to be integrated with SOPFEU ground crews inland. A second group of 30 began a session in Chisasibi a few days later with a trainer who flew up from Maniwaki. 

Rains and humidity in the following days helped stall the fire’s progress, providing a brief window for the Billy Diamond Highway to reopen for essential services, humanitarian reasons and residents returning home. As fires were still present on both sides of the road, this status was to be regularly reassessed according to the latest conditions. 

“We have local fire departments who are ‘boots on the ground’ to do daily checks on the access roads and give information to SOPFEU,” added regional fire marshal Lee-Roy Blacksmith. “They put checkpoints on some access roads so community members can reach their local PSO as they get closer to the community.”

The heavy rains had yet to extinguish the fires as hoped and hot spots remained on access roads where the flames had crossed. Firefighting reinforcements from the US had arrived in Radisson and water bombers were waiting for better visibility to conduct operations. Blacksmith said decisions were coordinated through daily meetings with deputy executive director Melissa Saganash, local PSOs, community leaders and provincial agencies.

Eastmain was planning internally for a gradual return according to step-by-step guidelines from the health board and other authorities, however, essential services such as the health clinic and grocery availability needed to first be in place. 

Bush access remained prohibited from Matagami up to the Trans-Taiga Road, where a fire had grown to become the biggest in Canada. It was one of 11 fires out of control in the province’s northern zone at press time, as blazes had consumed over 2.8 million hectares of forest.

While news outlets report the wildfires haven’t touched any homes, Cree land users may have a different story. Keith Bearskin’s large cabin went up in flames along with the family’s boats, ATV and other gear. Like many others, the Chisasibi Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA) president was uninsured. 

Only 262 cabins were insured under CTA’s program, which is hindered by the challenges of gathering building details in the deep bush. Cree Board of Compensation chairman Derrick Neeposh suggested the fires will likely increase premiums or even prevent insurance coverage.

Waswanipi forestry consultant Allan Saganash is aware of some traplines that have been completely lost. Evacuated multiple times, Saganash has struggled with asthma exacerbated by the wildfire smoke and sickness from being away from traditional food. However, that doesn’t compare to the heartbreak of witnessing the forest fire’s devastating aftermath. 

“As I stood towards the charred land along the highway, sadness and a deathly silence fell upon me,” Saganash shared. “What was once a forest bustling of wildlife, the foliage making familiar sounds that only a hunter can understand, was all gone. Not only our traplines are lost but many of our camps which many of us consider our real homes.”

Gull-Masty said that she’s in discussions with the CTA to determine the impacts and next steps for securing potential recovery resources. She said this season has brought hard lessons for both governments and land users that will inform fire prevention strategies.  

“It is absolutely necessary to address the concerns of the land users,” Gull-Masty told the Nation. “We’re basically almost in a refugee status from the impact of climate, which creates obligations for government to respond to our needs. This isn’t just empty forests catching on fire – one tallyman told me this is cultural infrastructure.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.