As the Kookipi Creek wildfire and others in the Stein Valley burned this summer, George Campbell worked tirelessly to protect the community he grew up in, where many of his friends and family still live.
"It's been a crazy, crazy summer," he said.
Campbell, 45, is a wildfire officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, managing the Fraser Fire Zone within the Coastal Fire Centre, stretching from Jackass Mountain to Haida Gwaii. He's also a member of the Boothroyd Indian Band, which was threatened by the fire.
He spent weeks fielding calls from people he knew wanting to know why he wasn't doing more to protect their land.
"It was tough to be the guy that had to fight that and answer a lot of the tough questions and to try to have a brave face and do your absolute best when inside you're absolutely crushed by the devastation that's happening to your traditional territory," Campbell said.
As of Sept. 26, the Kookipi Creek fire remains out of control and has burned more than 170 square kilometres. On Sept. 7, it was reported that 27 structures had been lost to the fire, including six homes.
Bridging the gap
It's Campbell's Indigenous knowledge and experience in wildfire management that has given him the tools to communicate more effectively with Indigenous leaders, and help bridge the gap between the wildfire service and First Nations governments within his area, something stakeholders have praised.
Stó:lo Tribal Chief Tyrone McNeil said Campbell embodies the direction the B.C. Wildfire Service — and other organizations — should be going.
"He knows us. He knows the community," McNeil said.
Campbell, left, has been an essential part of communicating wildfire information to First Nations in the Fraser Fire Zone. (Submitted by George Campbell)
He said Campbell doesn't use wildfire service jargon; he explains things in a comprehensive way.
"Communications are just wide open. We've never had a question go unanswered with him in place."
Indigenous communities have a lot at stake when a wildfire threatens their traditional lands: damaged watersheds impact fishing, scorched forests impact hunting and the gathering of medicines and important cultural areas, like burial sites, risk being destroyed.
'We need more Georges'
Dianne Garner, the emergency capacity co-ordinator for the Emergency Planning Secretariat, echoed McNeil's praise, adding that Campbell uses insights from knowledge keepers and elders, who can explain significant cultural landmarks in their communities when needed.
"It's okay to ask George any question about a wildfire," she added. "There's no such thing as a silly question."
Garner said Campbell embodies the term Hílekw Sq'eq'o (Hee-lick Ska-ka), which means "get ready together" in Hal'qeméylem (Hall-kuh-may-lum), one of the dialects of the Mainland Coast Salish First Nations.
"We need more Georges."
Campbell said he has a good understanding of First Nations governance having grown up around it.
"My grandfather was a chief, my uncles were chiefs and my brother is currently a chief," he said.
He shared a story of visiting a First Nation in B.C.'s Interior during a particularly bad fire year, and being met with concern.
"They asked me what I was doing on their land and why I'd be there uninvited," Campbell said. "They didn't see a First Nations person. They saw what they call a 'red shirt.'" Also known as a B.C. Wildfire Service employee.
But after speaking with them, learning about their needs, he built a relationship with the First Nation and was able to help.
Campbell is a member of the Boothroyd Indian Band and a wildfire officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service. (Submitted by George Campbell)
Now, he said, his communication is all about giving people the facts as he understands them, and making himself available to answer questions.
"They feel a lot more valued when somebody from B.C. Wildfire Service is actually speaking to them."
That said, he wishes the wildfire service would create cultural liaison positions to better communicate with First Nations on wildfire preparedness and response.
For example, he said, someone who understands which areas are sacred, such as burial sites, and who can explain how firefighters can protect and respect those areas.
The B.C. Wildfire Service did not provide an interview despite repeated requests. Instead, it sent a statement that said that the province is "committed to supporting firekeepers and communities to share their knowledge and rebuild their practices and is working with Indigenous partners to advance this work.
"We are working directly with First Nations to have community liaisons as part of our incident command structure on wildfires. This assists with information sharing and helps the response team have cultural information from First Nations to help decide how to protect important cultural values."
'I'm still passionate'
When he first fought a wildfire at the age of 16, Campbell knew he wanted to make a career out of it.
He joined local firefighting crews, and eventually worked his way up the ladder with the B.C. Wildfire Service.
"It's really humbling for me to even call myself that, to call myself a wildfire officer," he said.
Campbell's son has since joined the wildfire service, and he says his daughter has shown interest in the field.
"It's awesome to see, but it's also frightening at the same time," he said.
George Campbell and his son, Damon Campbell, who also works for the wildfire service. (Submitted by George Campbell)
The summer of 2023 brought new challenges when Campbell's home territory was threatened, and in some cases destroyed by wildfire.
"People know me, I'm local to the area. I was the incident commander and there were times where you get kind of beat up by people that expect you to do more when you're already doing your absolute best, you're already stretched to the limit. It's tough in that regard," he said.
"To be able to come through that … it makes me feel driven to do even better."
Despite long days co-ordinating the fire response mixed with the emotions of watching his traditional territory go up in flames, Campbell said he's still committed to his work with the wildfire service.
"To be honest with you, I love it even more because I see the positive things," he said.
"I'm still passionate about it."