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Wildfire strategies a focus of regional climate forum

BY Patrick Quinn Apr 16, 2024

Geese are coming home early. Some didn’t venture far this winter, which wasn’t much of one according to every available metric. Still-smouldering zombie fires and reduced snow are already concerning land users as the wildfire season approaches. 

Almost each month is breaking temperature records and there are signs that wildlife are struggling to adapt. Climate change is a clear and present danger for the Cree Nation, and it’s responding with a new unit to navigate emerging climate threats.

“We’re just building the team,” said Olivier Kölmel, CNG’s climate change manager hired in September. “It’s a priority issue for the Grand Chief since the start of her mandate. The focus is supporting communities on their initiatives, put in an action plan for the governments and work on a regional adaptation plan.”

A key initiative for Kölmel’s team is the Cree Regional Climate Forum to be held in Ouje-Bougoumou April 9-11, following a pilot forum held in 2018. 

“The workshops and discussions are all about empowering communities, defining climate leadership and adaptation planning,” explained Kölmel. “The first day we’ll have a panel on forest fires with federal and CNG representatives. That’s top of mind for most folks.”

Quebec’s forest fire protection agency, SOPFEU, issued its earliest-ever first warning of the season at the beginning of March. Above-normal temperatures are expected to continue through the spring, creating dryer vegetation that can quickly spread a fire. SOPFEU is expanding its workforce and will be ready to hit the ground earlier than usual.  

Western Canada’s wildfire season has already begun, with most of the 154 active fires holdovers from last year. Blazes simmering below the surface, sometimes called overwintering or zombie fires, are rare in Quebec but Cree land users are on the lookout. 

“I saw on Facebook there was smoke coming out from under the snow in the Mistissini area,” said Lee-Roy Blacksmith, the Cree Nation’s regional fire marshal. “We’ll wait for land users notifying us if they’re seeing smoke during the springtime while people do their Goose Break hunts.”

Blacksmith recently addressed the Grand Council about concerns over diminished snow and swiftly thawing rivers and lakes. He works with SOPFEU and Indigenous Services Canada to ensure more community members are trained to fight forest fires and that they will have the same equipment as SOPFEU. 

While Cree people from five communities were trained during last summer’s hectic fire season, 25 people from each of the four remaining communities will begin training in late May when melted lakes provide a reliable water source. 

“Our main priority is to help SOPFEU and be the first responders when we start seeing fires around the communities instead of waiting for SOPFEU to come,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “We’ll get out there and try to maintain as much as we can.”

As communities complete their reports summarizing local impacts from last year’s fires, they’re also preparing emergency measures plans. Evacuation lists need to be updated to ensure that emergency team members aren’t required to leave due to medical issues or to care for children or grandchildren.

At the climate forum, Blacksmith will discuss progress on prevention measures and emerging initiatives. He said effectiveness substantially improved after a regional core group was established midway through last summer to facilitate communication and align responses between communities and external agencies. 

Over 100 participants representing all 11 Cree Nations are expected at the forum. Day one will take stock of the current situation, day two will look forward at adaptation planning and day three will focus on governance and climate leadership.  

The 2018 forum in Eastmain drew stakeholders from numerous entities from Cree, federal and provincial governments as well as researchers from McGill University and UQAT. Participants highlighted that climate change was disturbing hunting activities, impacting cultural transmissions to younger generations and impacting housing, water and food quality.

A new report emphasizes the leadership role of Indigenous communities in mitigation approaches. The “Indigenous Resilience Report” is the first comprehensive survey of climate change impacts from the perspective of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. 

Arguing for a re-framing of the climate crisis as consumer society’s disruption of the natural balance of life, Anishinaabe Elder Dave Courchene-baa states that “it is because of how we have behaved as human beings that we have to feel the impact of what we have done to the Earth.” 

Climate change is viewed as an interrelated crisis affecting Indigenous peoples, exacerbating other colonialism impacts like the infrastructure gap. The report’s Indigenous authors contend that their peoples’ deep connection with the land should be leveraged to assess environmental changes and develop holistic responses.  

Research shows that Canada is warming at twice the global average and the Arctic three times faster. Another report about Quebec’s 2023 wildfire season calls for a comprehensive risk-management approach that includes new fire suppression strategies and industrial logging methods that support forest resilience.

Although the province’s overall precipitation was near historic levels, Eeyou Istchee experienced an unusual deficit, while average temperatures were three-to-five degrees above normal. Suggesting that timber harvest rates may be too high to sustain a steady supply, the analysis proposes creating precautionary forest reserves.

The study stated that further global warming could mean up to a five-fold increase in the area burned each year by century’s end. With over 250 bush cabins burned in Eeyou Istchee last summer, the Cree Nation is planning a public education campaign on safety measures.

“The majority of the fire chiefs and public safety officers took the fire smart program this fall,” said Blacksmith. “There was too much flammable vegetation around the camps. We’ll promote how to have fire-resistant camps before the summer season.”

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.