Skip to main content

Damage from a wildfire is seen in Boston Flats, B.C., on July 11, 2017.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Emergency officials and police are urging British Columbia residents to respect evacuation orders ahead of fast-moving wildfires, but some First Nations are standing their ground, successfully protecting their homes and property.

The chief of the Tl'etinqox First Nation said RCMP officers told them to leave or risk having their children taken away. Instead they erected a fire boundary and prepared to fight.

"We are generation after generation that continue to live in a fire zone. This is not new to us," said Chief Joe Alphonse, whose community is about 100 kilometres west of Williams Lake. "We feel this is the safest place for our community members to be."

Story continues below advertisement

B.C. wildfires: The damage so far, and how you can help

Related: B.C. wildfires force shutdown of forestry mills

There are about 1,000 residents on the reserve, but Alphonse said only about 300 stayed to fight the fires.

BC Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek said there had been a slight reprieve in the weather forecast with some rain expected, bringing relief to the windy, hot and dry conditions fuelling nearly 200 fires and displacing more than 14,000 people.

Crews took advantage of calmer conditions Wednesday to make progress on fire guards near Williams Lake, where 10,000 people remain on evacuation alert.

With improved conditions, Alphonse said he finally had a moment to reflect on the three days of fire fighting without the aid of power or telephone service.

He said Mounties told them to evacuate last weekend and the conversation quickly became heated.

Story continues below advertisement

As chief, he said his signature is required to enforce the evacuation order on the reserve, which he chose not to authorize.

Robert Turner of Emergency Management BC said Alphonse was correct. First Nations have the authority to issue their own evacuation orders for their territory.

"They would hopefully be taking advice from the same experts as a local government," he said.

Alphonse said many in the community wanted to stay behind to fight and they have trained firefighters, access to heavy equipment and emergency plans to evacuate if they lost the battle with the fire.

He said an officer threatened to have the Ministry of Children and Family Services "remove all the children."

Tempers flared and Alphonse said he suggested their own roadblocks would keep the Mounties out and if that didn't work, perhaps warning shots above their heads would.

Story continues below advertisement

RCMP Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau said in a statement Wednesday, "as far as the comments made by Chief Alphonse, we do not believe the comments made are reflective of the recent and continued meetings and conversations we have had with the chief."

The RCMP's responsibility is to "advise the public that there has been an order and advise them of the risk associated with staying," Linteau told reporters on a conference call.

"Of course, if the person has the ability to make their own decision and they are over the age of 19, we will not force them to leave the home," she said.

But she said if there are children under 19 at risk, police are required to move them to a safe location. No children have been removed by the RCMP to date, she added.

Alphonse disagrees that officers were trying to protect their children.

"The safest place for our kids is here with their families under the supervision of the leadership of this community," he said.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said Indigenous Peoples have a fundamental right to make decisions about protecting and defending the safety, health and well-being of their community.

"If and when houses and band infrastructure are lost to these fires, it will take years to rebuild and we fear in many instances the homes and infrastructure may never be built," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said in a statement that the department is working with Emergency Management BC and First Nations to make sure the communities are supported.

B.C. Forest Minister John Rustad told radio station CHNL that the province was concerned about the situation.

"People are staying behind, they want to fight for their homes. That poses a very serious problem. We know these fires can be very, very volatile and can change at a moments notice," Rustad said.

Ultimately, Alphonse said staying was the right decision and it saved at least 10 homes.

The chief of the Bonaparte Indian Band north of Ashcroft said they also defied an evacuation order over the weekend and successfully stopped flames from overrunning their reserve.

"My community has some really skilled firefighters, like a lot of First Nations reserves, and they came together and they stopped that wildfire from wiping out that whole community," Chief Ryan Day said.

He said 60 of the band's 280 members stayed to fight the fire.

The community doesn't have a firehall, a new water reservoir hasn't been connected to their main supply yet and they don't have a formal emergency response plan in place.

But Day said the experience of the trained forest firefighters in his community and access to heavy equipment contributed to their success.

"We weren't prepared for it of course because it happened in a blink of an eye, but we snapped into action and everyone did their part," he said.

— By Linda Givetash in Vancouver, with files from Laura Kane

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter