Native approach to wildfires

A First Nation in British Columbia whose members refused to leave when its territory was encircled by wildfires is calling for an Indigenous-led emergency response centre and recognition of Aboriginal Peoples' inherent jurisdiction in emergency response and recovery.

The Tsilqhot'in National Government issued 33 recommendations as part of its report on the record-breaking 2017 wildfire season today in Vancouver alongside provincial and federal representatives.

Chief Joe Alphonse has been a vocal critic of the wildfire response by the federal and provincial governments, saying their failure to recognize Indigenous knowledge and firefighting skills posed a greater threat to the First Nation than the fires themselves.

He told a crowd at the University of British Columbia that the six communities that comprise the Tsilqhot'in have lived in fire country for time immemorial but lack some basic infrastructure and resources that would better equip them to protect themselves.

The report, called The Fires Awakened Us, does not propose a specific budget for implementing its recommendations, which also includes more fire halls, geotechnical work to stabilize banks and a one-stop reimbursement process for First Nations.

B.C.'s minister of forests, Doug Donaldson, says the government has begun acting on feedback it received from the First Nation, as well as 108 recommendations made in an independent report last May to overhaul disaster response practices after the 2017 wildfire and flood seasons.

He says the province believes it has already addressed 18 per cent of the recommendations in the Tsilqhot'in report, including incorporating local knowledge in emergency responses and providing firefighting training.

The report says adopting emergency response rooted in local traditions and values is an opportunity for reconciliation in an area that is complex but critical and could be applied to resolving "many First Nation jurisdictional battles."

The change should be Indigenous-led but supported by the provincial and federal governments, it says.

"Recognizing First Nation values and decision making require courage and leadership by all governments."

The 2017 wildfires burned more than 1.2 million hectares of land, cost $600 million and forced 65,000 people from their homes.

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