This is the twelfth and final post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
My husband and I got married on May 23rd of 2015 and during our ceremony we got word that a fire had picked up in northern Saskatchewan. The fire crew, including my husband and his father, would be flying, out at 8a.m the following morning. They didn’t know where they were being stationed until they got to the Weyakwin Fire base, where they learned it was an urgent situation and crews were coming from all over the country and province to be flown out. They spent the whole summer on 10-day shifts with 2 days off. During this time, we prayed they would be safe wherever they were sent, not thinking for a second that we would be the community hit next. That year, wildfires ran rampant through Montreal Lake Cree Nation 106A.
By June 28th, community members could tell there was a fire in close proximity. In July Facebook videos of fire nearing the community beginning to circulate. Community members, including myself called the band office and health centre looking for answers: is the fire close? What areas are being effected? Should we prepare for evacuation?
Many of us were told that due to a “lack of threat,” the situation was being monitored. If the smoke were to pick up, we would be evacuating those with lung issues, Elders and children under the age of two. My father-in-law, who was working on the fire line called me. He told me to be ready to leave whenever, as evacuation was likely. I was thankful for his advance notice as I packed up my family’s belongings.
On July 4th, an emergency volunteer came to our door and told me we-were being evacuated. After arrival at the band office, we jumped on a yellow school bus, and were driven 106km south to Prince Albert via the highway only minutes before the wind shifted and access to the highway #969 out of the community was blocked. Meanwhile, our fire crews were fighting fires 300km north of us.
Montreal Lake Wildland Firefighters
My husband and his father came back to a community surrounded by smoke, protected by strangers, and with no idea where their family had evacuated. As reports produced by Indigenous organizations have pointed out, First Nations firefighters are frequently in a bind, having to choose between doing what is right for their families, communities and territories, and following regulations of the field. (Poole et al.2020; McGee and Christianson 2020). Sending local firefighters far away is a waste of local knowledge that could help save communities.
Aftereffects of the 2015 Fires
Our bus was moved to the Saskatchewan Polytechnic – the local technical college in Prince Albert that had been set up as an evacuation centre by the Red cross. I remember how terrifying that was, how helpless I felt. I was a newlywed with an infant and toddler, sleeping in a loud gym, feeling so uncomfortable and out of place as people walked around my children as we tried to sleep.
The calls started coming in as we sat there families informed that they had little to go back to, that their traditional homes that they lived in for generations had been destroyed by the fires that surrounded Montreal Lake.
Shortly after, we were moved to a hotel where we got to stay comfortably for 2 days. After the second day, our rooms were given away to other evacuating bands. We stayed in a tent outside my cousin’s already over-crowded house. I had a lung infection which left me bed ridden. Like many others, our family felt the impacts of evacuation displacement, which ranged from uncertainty about where we would stay the next day, to becoming ill, to the disruption of family and community connections.
Mental Health, Traditional Lands, and Improving Wildfire Response
For First Nations people, a major source of medicine and healing– and therefore a key mental and community health support– involves accessing our traditional landbases. Yet, as climate change increases, our territories are being impacted, including how they are able to recover from wildfire. Recently, our community has seen the effects on our traditional lands near Molanosa, Saskatchewan, which is approximately 63.1 Kilometers from Montreal Lake Cree Nation 106A.
Like most communities, our nation gathers every year at our treaty signing area, and the whole community heads out the second week of August. This is where we take part in traditional activities. This week is also when the berries, herbs and medicines are ready for picking in the area, which is one of the main reasons why we go every year. It provides our community with saskatoon berries, cranberries, wild berries, as well as wild mint, rat root and other medicines which we use through out the winter. For many of our people, 2021 came as a big surprise as the peat moss that surrounds our berry patches and promotes growth and nutrients to mother nature, was so brittle and dry that it could not do what it was intended to. Berry picking in the area was scarce, as there was no rain in the area all summer. Not many people are aware that berries are essential for our survival and way of life. We use berries and herbs in our sweats and ceremonies. They are an offering to our way of life. We pray over our berries and ask for strength, sustenance and give thanks. 2021 made our community realize the effects climate change is having on our way of life.
Fires have made it difficult for our hunters and trappers in the area as their years of catch are dwindling and traplines get burned. Add logging and deforestation to the scenario, and it leaves our people with skills that were passed down for generations but little land to engage with. What do our traditional trappers and hunters do when they no longer have land to maintain and protect? Maintaining a healthy land base, supports our economic livelihoods, and is central to our physical, spiritual, mental health and wellbeing, which helps us respond to and recover from wildfire events. Hiring local First Nations firefighters who know the land and developing policies that consider the effects of climate change and logging are some ways that will improve response for our people.
I want to find a solution that protects everyone: from the workers who fight front line to the ones who fight behind the scenes. One of my biggest wishes are those passed down from my grandparents “that we leave this place a lot better than when we first arrived.” Those are words that I live by every day of my life.
Tara McGee and Amy Christiansen, First Nations Wildfire Evacuations: A Guide for Communities and External Agencies, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021.
Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC), Fighting Forest Fires in Northern Saskatchewan: Task Force Interim Report, Prince Albert, Prince Albert Grand Council, 2018.
Megan Poole, John Merasty, & James Waldram, “Like Residential Schools All Over Again/tāskoc kitimāhtāsowi kiskinwahamākewin asamīna:” Experiences of Emergency Evacuation from the Assin’skowitiniwak (Rocky Cree) Community of Pelican Narrows, Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan AnthoInSight Publications, 2020.
Xianli Wang, Dan Thompson, Ginny Marshall, Cody Tymstra, Richard Carr, & Mike Flannigan, “Increasing frequency of extreme fire weather in Canada with climate change,” Climatic Change, 130(4)(2015), 573-586.
Thanks to the Prince Albert Grand Council Wildfire Resilience Initiative for supporting this research. The project is supported through a grant from Canadian Forest Service-Natural Resource Canada, Wildfire Resilience Component, Nature Canada, and the Prince Albert Grand Council. Thanks to Conrad Naytowhow for use of his photos and YouTube videos, and Alex Zahara for editing assistance.