After 2-week wildfire evacuation, Sask. First Nations hope to enhance emergency management

Smoke from the Bell fire, north of Hudson Bay. (Prince Albert Grand Council/Submitted)

Hundreds of evacuees are returning home to the Red Earth and Shoal Lake Cree Nations after a wildfire left an unsafe smoky haze lingering in their homes.

It’s the second time this wildfire season the communities have evacuated – leaving the chiefs looking to strengthen their independent emergency response plans.

“We get a better service if we do it ourselves instead of waiting for somebody that’s supposed to be providing the service to our communities. It’s just not there,” said Shoal Lake Chief Marcel Head.

The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency is responding to the nearby wildfire. However, Head said the response wasn’t quick enough to prevent evacuations.

“(Wildfires are) affecting our communities. We may as well do that ourselves because I think we do a better job.”

Fred Bradshaw is the MLA for Carrot River Valley, which includes Shoal Lake and Red Earth.

“There’s been some problems. The thing is, this year we’ve just had an abnormally dry year in the forest and any little thing will set off a fire and it’s very difficult to put out when it’s this dry,” Bradshaw said.

He added that trained firefighters from Shoal Lake and Red Earth are working with the public safety agency, but Head said it would be best if they “completely take over.”

Head said he and Red Earth’s chief, Fabian Head, want a national plan where every First Nation has its own emergency response centre. This would also include other emergency resources, such as search and rescue.

“Obviously we need support in terms of equipment to go along with our response plan,” Fabian said, explaining how Red Earth’s 1986 fire truck isn’t optimal for a proper response.

“It’s infrastructure like that that we need to be able to handle these emergencies.”

Head estimated about 600 people evacuated from Shoal Lake, while about 800 people fled from Red Earth.

Fabian said the two communities will likely see smoke on and off throughout the winter.

“It’s just that idea of having to be on standby more or less now going into the winter season, into the winter months knowing that the fire is still there, it will still be burning.”

The two chiefs have been vocal about how wildfires are impacting Indigenous lands, killing off wildlife needed for hunting and trapping.

“That’s why we had to send that message – SOS,” Fabian said.

“Save our ancestral lands, save our trapping lands, our hunting lands, our campgrounds.”