‘I came home to fight for my land’: First Nations battle Canada blaze that displaced them

·7 min read

When Tyler Vander Griend saw thick black smoke rising above the village of Lytton in western Canada, his first instinct was to run towards the inferno.

But the flames were moving too fast, and Vander Griend, a lanky youth from the nearby Kanaka Bar First Nation, was forced to watch helplessly as fire consumed the community.

“You know how hard that hurts, to sit there and watch your own hometown burn down, and you just want to save it?” he said.

Related: ‘There’s nothing left in Lytton’: the Canadian village destroyed by wildfire – picture essay

Lytton was almost completely destroyed, as were houses in the surrounding area. One month on, the fire is still burning – a 42,000 hectare inferno fueled by hot, dry conditions. But now Vander Griend and other Indigenous evacuees have undergone training and are battling that same blaze.

First Nations communities in British Columbia, often in rural areas and surrounded by forest, are on the front lines of Canada’s changing climate. With nearly 250 wildfires burning in the region and provincial crews short-staffed, Indigenous fire crews play an increasingly critical role in keeping the fires at bay. And as more head to the front lines, First Nations leaders want a greater say over how forests are managed – and how they’re burned.

  • Tyrone Saul of Neskonlith First Nation studies a tree during his Dangerous Tree Assessor certification at Tsútswecw provincial park, as nearly 300 wildfires burn in the province.

Indigenous peoples across the continent have long known that small, deliberate fires lit during the spring, known as prescribed burns, can prevent larger fires in summer months. Before they were forcefully moved from their traditional territory and onto reserves in the late 1800s, Indigenous communities used the fires to help clear the buildup of flammable wood, encourage the growth of medicinal plants and create protective barriers around their communities.

“If you listen to our elders, they say that if we look after the land, it will look after us,” said Harry Spahan, a fire keeper with the Nlaka’pamx Nation who has worked with British Columbia’s wildlife service for more than forty years.

Indigenous peoples recognized that diverse forests – including a mix of cedar, spruce and Douglas fir – burn differently than those dominated by a single species. Trees like mountain ash, which burns slowly, can prevent fires from moving too quickly and aggressively. But large plantations of the lodgepole pine favoured by the forestry industry are much more vulnerable to larger and more devastating fires.

“I remember when I was young and the old-timers would burn fields all the way up into the tree line so that if there was a forest fire, it stayed up there and never came down to the villages,” said Mojo Thomas, an evacuee from the Skeetchestn Indian Band who was camped out on the grounds of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. “Nowadays, we don’t do that. So that’s why a fire could rip right down that mountain and hit us over here, and there would be no stopping it.”

A bad summer of fires has prompted calls from Indigenous groups to modernize policies around prescribed burning and to give First Nations more power to conduct such burns on their own territory and on neighbouring Crown land.

  • Firefighters, many of them members of First Nations from surrounding communities, take their written test for the Dangerous Tree Assessor certification.

  • Josh and Jaguar Machelle are part of a crew of firefighters evacuated from their homes in Lytton, and now living in a camp set up at the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc pow-wow grounds. Right: Curtis Alec, left, an 11-year veteran of forest firefighting, was evacuated from his home and then headed out to start firefighting.

  • From left, Bryden Williams and partner Ryan Webster, along with brothers Wade, Wayne, and Mathew Webster, after their firefighting shift at the Tk’emlúps powwow grounds.

“The current policies have really held our communities – and our people –back,” said Spahan. “But there are a number of nations really trying to work with the provincial and federal governments to build something that is better down the road,” he said.

Four years ago, a report suggested that British Columbia “increase the use of traditional and prescribed burning” in partnership with First Nations, including modifying existing rules and regulations, which many Indigenous leaders say causes delays and bureaucratic headaches.

The province says it supports “traditional and cultural burning” and has “assisted many First Nations across the province in this practice” – but adds that any controlled burn must comply with pre-existing environmental regulations.

  • A firefighter walks under a streetlight as the Embleton Mountain wildfire rips down the mountain towards the edge of the village of Whitecroft, British Columbia.

Indigenous firefighting has also been hampered by another painful chapter in Canada’s recent past: the notorious residential schools for Indigenous children, which were explicitly established to disrupt the teaching of ancestral customs and knowledge.

Canada's residential schools

Over the course of 100 years, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.

They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect and suicide; many were never returned to their families.

The last residential school closed in 1996.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

In 2015, a historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded that the residential school system amounted to a policy of cultural genocide.

Survivor testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse were rife at the schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed down to younger generations – a reality magnified by systematic inequities that persist across the country.

Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, and racism against Indigenous people is rampant within the healthcare system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups.

The commissioners identified 20 unmarked gravesites at former residential schools, but they also warned that more unidentified gravesites were yet to be found across the country.

“These residential schools were a shock to our culture,” said Thomas. “And we’re the product of it. Because we don’t know the language. We can’t speak to each other. We don’t know basic rituals that our people once had, learning how to live through each of the seasons.”

The Lytton blaze, which displaced more than 1,000 people from surrounding communities, is now more than a month old. People who had to flee their homes have been camped out in Kamloops, waiting to return.

Those who joined the fire teams recently got their chance – spending days battling the flames in the smoky haze and sweltering heat.

“I came home to fight for my land. I wanted to do it on my own territory,” said Josh Machelle, the crew leader.

  • As the Sparks Lake wildfire threatened houses and properties on the Skeetchestn Indian Band, Mojo Thomas loaded his truck with his three kids and two dogs to seek shelter at the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc powwow grounds in Kamloops, British Columbia. Mojo with his kids from left, Lila Rose Zabotel, Joe Zabotel-Gott, Moses Zabotel-Gott, and his dogs Tanto, right, and Zhooktoot.

  • Thomas is seen here in his contrary mask, one of the ceremonial items he was able to pack; and with his dogs Zhooktoot, left, and Tanto.

Despite the growing number of First Nations youth eager to fight fires, they often do so as contractors – a role separate from official provincial fire crews – with fewer resources and less say in how the fires are attacked.

The First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of British Columbia has been lobbying for years for more Indigenous firefighters as well as funding to train local volunteers – and for more power for communities to respond proactively to wildfires.

Machelle, who has fought fires for the last 15 years, said that this summer has been the worst he has experienced.

“This is the most painful year. I lost my town. I lost my community. Lytton’s never gonna be the same,” he said. “We’re just trying to protect each other because that’s our people. We feel for what other communities are facing – but we’d rather be at home, on our lands and our territory, fighting this thing.”

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