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Cascading Hazards

BY Patrick Quinn Nov 13, 2023

While cooler and rainy October weather is dampening the remaining blazes in Eeyou Istchee, an exceptionally hot and dry September sparked flareups near Wemindji’s access road and forced it to close again as the month ended. 

A road maintenance crew determined the fire had crossed the access road at km 90 while visibility and air quality were very poor from km 88 to 94. While the access road was closed September 30 and October 1, the fires also caused frightening conditions for drivers on that stretch of the Billy Diamond Highway.

“Smoke was thick at times on the road home to Chisasibi and at one point there were ashes falling, which at first we thought were raindrops but it wasn’t wet,” said Angela Gates. “We saw three fires. The far ones looked scary because it was night and we saw a lot of orange in the distance. My kids and I were shocked that they had reignited.”

Although the road reopened the following Monday, drivers were cautioned that shifting winds could continue to cause flareups. Regional fire marshal Lee-Roy Blacksmith told the Nation that these blazes didn’t require a firefighter response and that SOPFEU is monitoring the area. 

As the fire season winds down, Blacksmith is organizing debriefing sessions with SOPFEU and his working group to begin planning for next year. In coming talks with SOPFEU, he’s looking to secure training for Cree firefighters in the spring and information on how to define damages for cabin insurance.  

“They want us to provide a fire report through SOPFEU,” said Blacksmith. “We’ll be working with SOPFEU on these cabin fires – where the fires were, what caused them.”

The Cree Nation Government launched a cabin damage registry in September to help document the impact of this summer’s forest fires on Cree cabins and equipment. The simple online form asks owners to submit their cabin’s location, size, type of infrastructure, funding source and estimated damage value. 

Owners are asked if their cabin was insured and whether they’re on the Economic Security Program, describing the damage in words and pictures. The survey is not an offer of financial aid. Local Cree Trappers’ Associations or Niskamoon officers are available to assist with filling out the form.

“This is a very, very large undertaking for the Cree Nation Government because the territory is huge,” explained Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “We want to find solutions to assist our members. We want to justify those solutions. This is your opportunity to participate in finding an outcome for the Cree Nation in terms of what happened this summer.”

Among the more than 10,000 cabins in Eeyou Istchee, only 262 had insurance. The CTA’s Thomas Stevens estimated that included less than 10% of Cree cabins that burned down. While it isn’t yet clear how Cree insurance rates will be impacted by this year’s wildfires, some homeowners in British Columbia found their rates had more than doubled by late summer.

According to Craig Stewart of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, insurers are assessing premiums for vulnerable communities based on existing fire protection and forest management practices. He said the insurance industry is in “intensive” talks with Natural Resources Canada to find solutions that encourage consumers to adopt wildfire mitigation practices. 

BC is currently the only province offering an intensive FireSmart program, which certifies property owners who complete recommendations following a risk assessment. Program lead Rachel Woodhurst said houses with a non-combustible roof in good condition and flammable material cleared about one-and-a-half metres around the perimeter have a 90% chance of survival.   

With less forest to absorb rainfall and moderate snowfall, areas impacted by fires may be at risk of flooding, infrastructure damage and other “cascading hazards,” according to Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan. 

The months of June, July and August were the warmest on record for the planet. Then September exceeded all these previous broken records by an unprecedented margin. While Canadian wildfires are typically slow by late August and fade away by October, many of this year’s fires grew at their fastest rates throughout late September, particularly in western Canada. 

On September 27, the last day that the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported numbers for the year, 798 fires were still burning, with 382 out of control. More than 6,400 wildfires scorched almost 18 million hectares across the country, including close to 4 million hectares in northern Quebec, much of it in Cree territory. 

Scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative found that human-caused climate change made Quebec’s wildfires through the end of July at least seven times more likely to occur – and at least 50% more intense. Although these fires were unprecedented, the report’s authors concluded “they are no longer extremely unusual.”

The substantial losses to forests, wildlife and cultural infrastructure have disturbed Indigenous communities’ balance with their surrounding nature. The Anishinabe community of Lac Simon has held several ceremonies to mourn the deaths of wildlife trapped in the blazes. 

“The forest that protects us has disappeared,” lamented the community’s former leader, Adrienne Jérôme. “Our pantry has disappeared. There are no more small game animals, no hares, no partridges. All the medicinal plants have burned.” 

While Cree land users like Allan Saganash have long criticized the region’s irresponsible forestry practices, a growing chorus of scientists denounce the industry’s focus on lucrative but fire-fuelling black spruce. They recommend prioritizing mixed reforestation of coniferous and deciduous trees that are more resistant to fire risk.

Saganash has already observed changes in the local wildlife. Due to the scarcity of poplar, birch and alder trees in their habitat, beavers are eating what’s called “skuudamwee” in Cree, found beneath water lilies in swampy areas.

“The moose seem to be sticking to their habitats near the forest fires,” Saganash shared. “Most likely because of the green areas in the fires that did not burn. I also assume they have no other place to go because of their already fragmented habitats.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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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.