Although wildfire season is still months away, plans are already being made in terms of how to approach any blazes this summer.
The newly established wildfire task force met for the first time officially in Stanley Mission on Jan. 26. The task force, which was officially announced last week by the Prince Albert Grand Council, is setting out to establish a connection with the provincial government.
According to Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte, who's been fighting fires since he was just 15 years old, the goal is to marry the old knowledge of the Elders with modern Western techniques while getting strategies in place for next year.
“We're not here to fight the government. We're here to share our knowledge with them,” Hardlotte said. “Our goal is to prevent the evacuations, to prevent the trappers' cabins from burning, to prevent land from burning, animals from burning.”
Hardlotte said he wants to get the foundation of a new wildfire strategy in place in time for the 2018 wildfire season. Specifically, he'd like evacuation measures addressed; he said the idea of abandoning a community due to fire is a new concept for First Nations people.
“First Nations at the time dealt with them in a way they knew. They knew the forests, they could see the fires,” Hardlotte said. “Lots of people were still out on the lands, they'd move to the islands and set up camp there so they were safe.”
Hardlotte said it was in 1995 when full evacuations of communities started. He said a sudden change due to a stressful event like a wildfire is hard on the health of Elders, adding at least one died during the evacuation process which took place in Wollaston Lake in 2011.
Elder Walter Beatty, brother of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Chief Peter A. Beatty, is a member of the wildfire task force with roughly 40 years of wildfire fighting experience. Walter agreed evacuations are a new measure for Indigenous communities; he took part in his first evacuation in 2008, and then again later in 2015. He helped advise the Cree Nation during both situations.
Walter also said the way fires are fought has changed from when he started fighting fires.
“It seems like they don't initially attack new [fires] like we used to; it used to be, you see any little smoke and you would go put that fire out before it got bigger than a campfire,” Walter said. “They let it burn quite a bit longer now before they decide to do something.”
He said in previous wildfire situations the communication hasn't always been clear and he hopes the task force can go about creating a better system in the future.
Peter weighed in on the impacts of the most recent wildfires; he said when the so-called granite fire, which started around the junction to Sandy Bay and Pelican Narrows, was a manageable size when it was first discovered. He agreed better, faster action could have been taken to prevent some of the long lasting damages caused by that fire.
“It's really impacting the trappers, the hunters, and this summer, the people who gather medicines on that land, they're not going to find those medicines,” Peter said. He added some trappers only just started clearing their trails and lands of debris from the fires. “It's going to impact them right now, and it's going to keep impacting them.”
Peter said he hopes the newly elected premier of Saskatchewan is open to having discussions and a working relationship with Indigenous people and northern residents.
“I think we have to try and make the government listen to us and work with us to address these things and we have to go back... to the way we were fighting fires in the first place, when it was fire suppression, not fire management,” Peter said.
On Twitter: @BryanEneas
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