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Wemindji’s vulnerable evacuate to Chisasibi as Eastmain honours firefighters

BY Patrick Quinn Sep 9, 2023

As the changing season brings cooler and wetter weather, Quebec’s forest-fire prevention agency SOPFEU is reducing its crews and moving management operations for the James Bay region to Val-d’Or. While fires continued to burn throughout Eeyou Istchee, most are under observation and don’t pose a threat to communities or infrastructure. 

The biggest concern at press time was the Wemindji fire 602, which was slowly progressing from the community access road to the Billy Diamond Highway. Thickening smoke from that fire forced the highway’s partial closure on August 27 but it reopened the following morning. 

High winds projected at 50 km/h prompted a Phase 1 evacuation of 230 of Wemindji’s most vulnerable residents to Chisasibi after a state of emergency was declared August 16. Marking the first time that evacuees had been sent to another Cree community, volunteers hosted most in private homes with the remainder accommodated at the hotel or construction camps. 

“It was a short-term evacuation, a precautionary measure,” explained regional fire marshal Lee-Roy Blacksmith. “They wouldn’t have had an access road if they wanted to evacuate. Only by air or, if it was really intense, out in the bay. Evacuating over 2,000 people with no access road would have caused a major issue.”

Blacksmith said SOPFEU had a ground crew working on Fire 602 and was conducting fly-by observations on fires near Waskaganish and the Trans-Taiga Road. While bush and forestry roads were open, travellers were warned to be cautious and to verify their status before heading out.

On August 29, Eastmain honoured outstanding members of its community, including the many emergency service workers and volunteers who kept it safe during this summer’s forest fires. Eastmain was fully evacuated in mid-July with Chinook helicopters sent by the Canadian Air Force. 

“It was pretty hectic on evacuation day, picking up people and transporting them to the airport,’ said Jeremy Shanush, Eastmain’s firefighting team leader. “We were told by midnight the closest it would get was six kilometres from the community. We were in a rush to make a fire line behind backyards and wetted the wooded areas near the community.”

When predicted precipitation didn’t arrive because the satellite had confused the heavy smoke with rain clouds, winds fortunately took the fire in the other direction. Shanush said it was strange seeing the community so empty, with only about 15 people left behind, and he stepped in as cook when the blazes were too intense for ground crews.

With fires between km 70 and 42 along the access road, the Eastmain team started from one end to battle hot spots, meeting up with SOPFEU somewhere in the middle. Trained in forest firefighting 10 years ago, this was the first time Shanush had worked with both SOPFEU and his son, who was one of the new recruits this summer. 

While SOPFEU’s mandate is to protect communities and infrastructure, Shanush argues that the Cree Nation should have its own forest firefighting entity to protect bush cabins and other “cultural infrastructure.” He did get permission to protect some local camps.

“At km 70 where the fire was raging and had gotten past the road, we managed to get through and save camps,” said Shanush. “We wet the area, left the sprinkler system on overnight and left. The smoke was very dense. There’s a video of my son walking in front of me as my guide. I had to listen to walk the roads.”

On a night mission to protect a camp at km 38, they arrived just as smoking embers were creeping from under the newly built cabin and managed to extinguish them. While a bulldozer had previously pushed away the surrounding foliage, fire had passed through some remaining vegetation. The cabin’s owner emotionally thanked them at the fire hall the following day.

Another night they were called at 3am to reinforce the Wemindji fire department. They arrived at 6:30am and went straight to work, battling fires near the airport all day. When SOPFEU workers complained about the smoke, Shanush joked “this is nothing – in the teepee you can barely see the guy across from you when we’re cooking.”

With a fire truck hauling water along the roadside, the crew would pump whatever they could find from nearby creeks with hoses in the woods. Walking the fire edge looking for hot spots, they would sometimes have to extinguish them two to three feet underground, so they didn’t flare up again.

“Sometimes in the woods doing hot spots a sudden flare-up will happen and there’s a big flame right beside you,” Shanush told the Nation. “You have to be careful with the trees that were burnt. Give a little nudge or step on that root and it could fall on you.”

While firefighters wait at the base during water bomber missions, Shanush said those trapped in the woods can shoot their hose skywards to communicate their presence. He was impressed by a team from the Yukon that drops self-igniting “dragon eggs” from the air. 

“The Yukon boys said we’ll fight fire with fire while the wind is in our favour,” explained Shanush. “They were afraid the fire would jump the lake, spread to the vegetation and continue along the road to Eastmain so they used that dragon to ignite a dry area. When the wind shifted there was no vegetation, so the plan worked.”

Visiting firefighters had impromptu lessons on Cree culture in the bush, enjoying traditional goose meals and a visit to the sweat lodge. Shanush introduced a Métis crew chief who had long been searching for a ceremonial drum to a friend, who gifted one to him.

“He started crying receiving this drum and said I’m very grateful I met you,” shared Shanush. “They’re far away from home. I hear people complain SOPFEU’s not doing this or that. It’s not true – I was very thankful for them.”

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.