Fire near evacuating First Nations preventable, Chief says

·2 min read

As the number of Shoal Lake Cree Nation band members fleeing a nearby fire threat grew to 580 on Tuesday, Chief Marcel Head had fresh memories of doing the same in July.

"If the province had put up those resources (and) put out this fire, we wouldn't be here evacuating our people," he said.

Head said evacuations were avoidable for his band and for 220 members of nearby Red Earth Cree Nation, who began leaving for Saskatoon and Regina on Monday.

The Bell fire north of Hudson Bay stretches over roughly 46,000 hectares and first sparked on July 14, but was considered contained before Sept. 28.

Other local fires sparked after July, Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency spokesman Christopher Clemett said.

Fire crews previously allowed to return home have been recalled to fight the blaze.

Ground crews with air tank and helicopter support are attacking the Bell fire, while other teams prevent smaller fires from growing, Clemett said.

Weyerhaeuser forestry staff and equipment, and teams from the two First Nations, are also joining the fight, he said.

Climate change stretching fire seasons into the spring and fall is changing things, said Brady Highway, a project manager of wildfire strategy with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

It means a lack of firefighting resources later in the year is a "major crisis," he said.

"We really need to start re-mapping how we think about and how we manage fires."

Highway has helped mentor crews from Red Earth and Shoal Lake that are fighting the blaze.

It's difficult to completely mop up large wildfires like the Bell fire, he noted.

A large landscape in drought conditions, with different and long-lasting fuel reserves tucked away, can burn for months — even through winter, Highway said.

Without more firefighting resources, wildfires will further affect traditional land use and livelihoods, said Red Earth Cree Nation Chief Fabian Head.

Smoke and wildfire growth send wildlife away, and prevent trapping, hunting and berry-picking, he noted.

"It's getting harder to preserve our way of hunting."

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Saskatchewan has had 605 recorded wildfires this year — roughly double the five-year average. Thirteen are currently burning.

The SPSA has issued an air quality warning tied to the fires and has placed a fire ban on east-central Saskatchewan.

It's also in "constant contact with community leadership, and has worked directly with communities to provide air scrubbers," Clemett said.

Until conditions change and members can return home, Chief Marcel Head said he remains worried that his community didn't get enough resources to turn the tide earlier.

"We're not really a priority at this point. That's what we see here, in terms of reactions coming from the province."

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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