Sacred areas, hunting grounds, traplines: Kátł'odeeche members reflect on what they lost in the fire
The morning before a wildfire forced Kátł'odeeche First Nation to evacuate not once, but twice, Anna Kasper said a herd of caribou near the N.W.T. community started moving along the shore of Great Slave Lake.
"All of a sudden, they made this trek — they were all walking away," the Kátł'odeeche member said. "So I'm guessing they knew that the fire was happening. They were walking along the lake shore."
On Thursday, nearly two weeks after it started, N.W.T. Fire said the out-of-control wildfire burning on the doorstep of Kátł'odeeche First Nation (KFN) and the town of Hay River was "being held" — meaning it's not expected to grow, so long as current conditions stay the same.
Some of the nearly 3,500 people forced to flee the area began to return to Hay River Thursday. Kátł'odeeche, however, remains off limits, in part because of severe damage sustained in the first days of the wildfire, which burned through the band office as well as individual homes.
But it's not only homes belonging to people that have been destroyed.
Outside the evacuation centre in Yellowknife, Kátł'odeeche members still waiting to go home said the 3,200 hectares of burned land is a habitat for all kinds of wildlife: woodland caribou, moose, bears, foxes, beavers, rabbits, birds and many more.
"There's a lot of small animals like little mice, squirrels," said Joe Tambour. "It's their area. If they get burned, if they have no place to go, they're going to move away for 10 to 12 years."
An incident earlier in the week sheds some light on how animals are coping with the fire.
George Bugghins, who does security for KFN, told CBC News he shot a 3-year-old male black bear on Wednesday that had been stalking firefighters. He said the fires and the habitat changes have made animals more aggressive.
"Right now they're pretty well scared, because the fire and stuff like that cornered them, eh? They just go into a protective mode and they'll just attack anything."
Wildfires are a natural and necessary occurrence in the boreal forest, but as the climate changes, they are expected to become more intense. Last fall, a forest ecologist with the N.W.T. government said there wasn't enough information to figure out if the characteristics of the territory's fires were changing.
At 3,200 hectares, the wildfire near Hay River and KFN is the third-largest out of 17 wildfires so far this year, according to the territorial government. To put that into further perspective, wildfires burned more than 650,000 hectares of land in the N.W.T.'s Dehcho, North and South Slave and Sahtu regions last year.
Trap lines lost
With a map of the burned area in hand, Tambour pointed to different areas that appear to have been damaged.
"It's mostly marsh area," he said. "From here to there, there's a little river, like a pond … there's a lot of vegetation, a lot of animals. As far as we know, we don't have any cabins within there."
There are cabins along Sandy Creek, which is at the burn area's eastern edge, said Tambour.
He said there's a wilderness lodge in that area too, but he's heard it was protected from the fire.
N.W.T. Fire confirmed Friday the lodge was not damaged — it had been successfully protected with intentionally set fires that cleared the surrounding vegetation.
Tambour and Peter Sabourin, a KFN band councillor, said community members primarily head to Buffalo Lake, closer to the border with Alberta, to hunt. But some do harvest animals on the now-burned land, too, they said.
At least one KFN member said he's lost a trapline in the fire. It had been in his family for generations, and he knows others with traplines in the burned area as well.
Sabourin, who also works with the local hunters and trappers group, said trails used for hunting will now likely be covered in burned and fallen trees. When the forest regrows and animals return, those trails will need to be recut, he said.
"A lot of things happen in those areas. Even cutting wood to heat your homes and that, there's a lot of people that use those areas for traditional stuff," he said.
Sacred areas burned
All three members said there are sacred areas within the fire's perimeter, too — places where community members have been buried.
"There's a very old elder that's buried in there, and a young child that he had raised," said Anna Kasper, pointing to a spot in the heart of the burned area on the map. "Right in a bushed area, it's really really bushed, it's hard to get to."
There are also a pair of graveyards — one Anglican and the other Catholic — at the fire's most northern point, she said.
"It came pretty close … I know that's what I was concerned about."