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Eeyou Istchee wildfires make Cree refugees of a climate emergency

July 19, 2023
By Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After an extremely dry June, rains in early July helped contain many of the large blazes still raging across much of Quebec. Although three fires remained out of control in Eeyou Istchee, firefighting crews were making steady progress as barriers ensured communities were not currently at danger.

“The fires we have now haven’t really progressed,” explained Lee-Roy Blacksmith, the Cree Nation Government’s regional fire marshal. “We know many people want to check if their camps are still there. The vegetation is still dry so they’re putting 40 km restricted areas around the contour of the fires.”

At press time, SOPFEU teams were tackling fire 379 southeast of Waconichi Lake from the northwest side while fire 344 northeast of Ouje-Bougoumou was contained nearly 200 km on its south side. After the reopening of roads 167 and 113, Blacksmith hoped expected rains might enable the Route du Nord to open after a long closure.

“We need like a week of constant rain,” said Blacksmith. “The trees are absorbing water as soon as it hits the ground so underground it’s all dry. Rekindled hot spots are still going up due to the dryness of the roots. If lighting comes in, another fire could appear.”


The outlook was significantly better than a few weeks earlier, when advancing fires that threatened Mistissini’s power substation and highway access forced the second largest Cree community to be evacuated before heavy smoke prevented further departures. After around 600 vulnerable residents were evacuated June 20, the remainder left June 23.

Community members were evacuated to Jonquière and Quebec City while military stationed in Mistissini were relocated to Chibougamau. With boats prepared at the last evacuation route of Mistassini Lake, about 60 volunteers stayed to protect the community. Sprinklers were installed at the community’s entrance, fire breaks were expanded, and a secondary road was improved as an alternative exit for future emergencies.

Most community members began returning home June 28 while more vulnerable members returned progressively as clinical services were restored at the Mistissini CMC, which resumed regular services on July 3. Dialysis patients gradually returned as their treatments in Montreal were completed while hemodialysis treatments resumed in Chibougamau on July 6.

Prolonged exposure to heavy smoke also forced the evacuation of “phase one” vulnerable members from Waswanipi and Ouje-Bougoumou. North winds united smoke from raging fires in the Trans-Taiga area with southern blazes to create a huge bulk over the Cree Nation that spread throughout the hemisphere, giving Montreal the world’s worst air quality on June 25.

“When you left your home, it felt like standing in front of an open flame,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “We had droplets of ashes. Waswanipi’s Old Post was a concern where their summer gatherings are, then the winds shifted from north to south and the fire stopped near the river.”

Although some Waswanipi residents refused to leave, evacuation was triggered after its last access road was threatened and the Chibougamau hospital had been closed. With hazardous air quality, emergency workers determined which public facilities had appropriate air filters, made home inspections to optimize air exchangers and distributed protective masks.

“We had constant issues with communication, phones going down,” explained Chief Irene Neeposh. “A power outage triggered something with our water pressure, so our clinic flooded. We had four feet of water in the basement, so the generator was submerged and it was a mess. I could make a movie series.”

Waswanipi’s CMC services are expected to resume by late August, with all services offered at the MSDC until further notice, except for dental services that are currently offered in Mistissini. Ouje-Bougoumou also opened services at its MSDC, which has an air filtering system that is safer for Elders.

Although mitigation efforts were hindered by numerous obstacles and general inexperience enacting emergency measures, Neeposh credited her “amazing” team and the cooperation of community members. With all residents allowed to return by June 30, it was still too early to assess the wider impacts in the surrounding areas.

“We’re trying hard to get back to normal as soon as possible,” said Neeposh. “I’m pretty sure it hasn’t sunk in yet, the depth of the impact. I’m preparing myself for that. These are not just cottages – these camps go way back. These are their traditional homes.”

Elders emphasized that the unprecedented intensity of fires, scorching 1.5 million hectares in Eeyou Istchee and 8 million across Canada, meant that natural regeneration wouldn’t occur as it had in past times. Cree leadership is discussing how to support its “refugees of a climate emergency,” land users who have lost their camps and resources necessary to hunt, fish and trap.

“I want to reassure the members that we are looking at this,” said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “It’s not enough to give us support in the community. We must address the concerns of those land users and those tallymen. I really want the government to understand that these areas are not just vast open spaces.”

Gull-Masty said there is no specific funding to help those who aren’t insured nor provisions in federal and provincial agreements to manage losses of this magnitude. She hopes to consult with government leaders to plan for long-term impacts.

While restrictions on forest access began to be relaxed in some regions, much of Eeyou Istchee remained off limits with open fires still prohibited. Temporary heliports were being established in Mistissini to accommodate large helicopters contracted by SOPFEU to fight fires and assist in heavy lift operations.

With Cree resources stretched to assist evacuees and SOPFEU requesting international reinforcements, community volunteers and organizations like the Red Cross have been valuable resources. Caught off guard this year, Cree communities are eager to become more involved in firefighting efforts, so this disaster doesn’t happen again.

“This was an eye-opener for everyone,” said Blacksmith. “This is the first time in Quebec we’ve encountered so many fires at one time. We’ve been in contact with SOPFEU upper management asking if we can get training for our Cree Nation members.”

Patrick Quinn is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for The Nation.

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