Training begins as Matawa First Nations make historic FireSmart pledge
October 30, 2023
By Austin Campbell, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Fire safety in a couple of remote First Nations communities is set to receive a major upgrade as Matawa First Nations Management secured two new wildfire rapid attack bush trucks for Eabametoong First Nation and Webequie First Nation as part of the FireSmart Project.
The project is a partnership between FireSmart Canada and Ontario, Indigenous Services Canada, and both First Nations receiving the new vehicles.
FireSmart Canada was established over 20 years ago to address common concerns about wildfires across the country, from urban areas to more remote communities.
Monica Budiselic, Matawa’s emergency management coordinator and fire marshal, expressed her excitement about what this means for the First Nations involved and for the future of fire safety in all remote northern communities.
Budiselic noted that this pilot project is the “first of its kind.”
“The Matawa Chiefs adopted the FireSmart program for all nine of the communities with a resolution,” said Budiselic. “So this – what we’re doing right now – is just a small component of the FireSmart program.”
Budiselic comes from a background working with volunteer fire departments throughout the region, beginning in East Gorham and Lappe, followed by Neebing, then as deputy fire chief of O’Connor volunteer fire department just outside of Kakabeka.
She has worked with Matawa First Nations Management for the last 20 years.
Her first introduction to FireSmart was during her time in Neebing when the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry went out with field officers and performed training with Budiselic and her fellow volunteers, picking a section of forest or remote land to “FireSmart.”
A main component of “FireSmarting” involves properly operating a powersaw to trim trees, eliminating combustible vegetation that could otherwise act as a “ladder” for spreading wildfire.
Now, with the approval of this new FireSmart pilot project, four individuals have been trained – two from each community – in Thunder Bay at one of Matawa’s buildings and at the Thunder Bay and Region Protective Emergency Services Training Centre.
“When they’re finished with this, they’re gonna have a training record, they’ll be able to take that back with them to the communities,” said Budiselic. “This is just the start of something that’s going to be beneficial to our communities for fire safety and fire protection.”
“There’s always a problem with brush-fires around our community every summer,” said John Slipperjack, fire chief at Eabametoong First Nation. “A big truck won’t go… can’t go anywhere like [the rapid attack] trucks.”
Eabemetoong First Nation already has one fire truck but it is too large to reach certain areas.
In contrast, Webequie First Nation has not had a fire truck in years, so the new rapid attack wildfire truck is a welcome addition to the community.
“This will help tremendously,” said Slipperjack. “I won’t have to take the big one… I can just leave it at the fire hall and use this one – plus, this one’s faster… [it’s] a great incentive for recruiting volunteers… that’s one major problem we’ve got in our communities: volunteers. But, people come out when there’s a fire, they help out. I appreciate that.”
Slipperjack said he is “grateful” to Matawa, Indigenous Services Canada, and everyone involved.
“I encourage people to do more training,” said Elaine Whitehead, a firefighter with the Webequie Fire Department.
Whitehead echoed Slipperjack’s observation that there is a distinct need for more volunteer firefighters in their respective communities.
On that note, Budiselic further advocated for fire safety awareness and prevention across the remote north, saying that having access to appropriate equipment, educational tools, and training is “really, really imperative.”
This development comes at a time when, as Budiselic pointed out, the number of wildfires is increasing across the region at an alarming rate every year.
“The fires are becoming bigger and hotter,” said Budiselic, “and they’re getting closer to our communities in the central part of northern Ontario.”
Remote communities, therefore, need the tools to fight these wildfires now perhaps more than ever.
“It’s going to take a little while to get it done,” Budiselic noted. “This is a pilot project, right now, with Indigenous Services… so, we’re gonna get some feedback from the community members where these trucks go and we might have to change up or change the design a little bit.”
Bigger trucks could be one such change, depending on each community’s infrastructure, needs, and an assessment of traversable roads and terrain.
The new units are going to be driven out to their respective communities – who each have infrastructure in place to house them – when the 2023/24 winter-road season officially opens and the way is safe.
With the support of ISC and Matwawa in this historic adoption of the FireSmart program, it’s clear just how important this project is for keeping northern First Nations communities safe, hopefully setting a precedent for greater access to fire safety equipment and education.
Austin Campbell is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for SNnewswatch.com.
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