Health, livelihoods at risk because of wildfires, say chiefs of two Indigenous communities

·3 min read
The Bell fire can be seen from the Red Earth First Nation. (Don Somers/CBC News - image credit)
The Bell fire can be seen from the Red Earth First Nation. (Don Somers/CBC News - image credit)

Wildfires are having a devastating effect on the health, livelihoods and ancestral lands of two northern First Nations, their chiefs say.

The Red Earth and Shoal Lake Cree Nations, located about 350 km northeast of Saskatoon, have evacuated residents because of smoke coming from wildfires in the Crackling River and Pasqua Hills areas.

The Bell Fire, which has been burning since the summer, is also close by and has increased in size to cover 46,000 hectares.

Shoal Lake Chief Marcel Head said smoke is the biggest concern right now.

"Most of our people are not in great health and considering the poor housing conditions, you know, smoke tends to seep in," said Head, adding almost 600 residents of Shoal Lake have been evacuated to Prince Albert.

"If they are inhaling this smoke into their bodies ... that poses a danger to their health."

Chief Head and Red Earth Chief Fabian Head both want the province to bring in more heavy equipment and other resources to fight the fires.

"Whatever they can provide us with to safeguard our communities."

CBC News
CBC News

The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) website said there are crews, heavy equipment, helicopters and air tankers deployed to battle the Bell fire.

But Chief Marcel Head said they haven't seen any aircraft or crews on the ground fighting the fires except for a few helicopters.

Red Earth Chief Fabian Head said people in his community are asking why they aren't seeing the same resources that were deployed when fires threatened homes and resorts in the Prince Albert and Smeaton areas this summer.

"You could see the amount of resources that were available [for those fires] and sent there immediately," he said. "That's the type of response we need for our situation as well.

"Our hunting lands, our ancestral lands are at stake, and our trap lands are at stake."

More than 200 people have been evacuated from the Red Earth Cree Nation.

Chief Marcel Head said their economy continues to shrink and these fires are going to have a major impact on hunting, fishing and trapping.

"[It] poses a real bleak picture on our economy."

As well, he said foresters have harvested timber on ancestral lands.

"And now, that is slowing down as well. You know, the province has made big money profits out of our land and we haven't seen a dime going back to our communities."

"It comes out of the policy of let the land burn," said Chief Marcel Head. "And that's wrong."

Chief Fabian Head said the fires are taking a toll on wildlife in the area too.

"The big game and the waterfowl are starting to be noticeably disappearing in terms of their usual seasonal migratory patterns," Head said.

Don Somers/CBC News
Don Somers/CBC News

An air quality alert from Environment Canada continues for much of central Saskatchewan because of the fires near the two First Nations

"This plume of smoke is producing areas of extremely poor air quality," said an Environment Canada release.

"Shifting winds across the region today will start pushing the plume northwards overnight into Wednesday."

Areas affected include Saskatoon, Prince Albert Melfort, The Battlefords and Kindersley areas.

The CBC reached to the SPSA for comment but did not receive an immediate response.

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