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Wildfires upend indigenous Canadians' balance with nature

LAC-SIMON (Canada) — Ms Adrienne Jerome is heartbroken. 

“Our pantry has disappeared. There are no more small game animals, no hares, no partridges. All of the medicinal plants have burned.”

All that remains now are blackened trunks.

A record number of wildfires, topping more than 6,400 at last count, scorched almost 18 million hectares this year, and forced thousands of indigenous people to flee for their lives. Although they only represent 5 per cent of Canada’s population, they nevertheless constitute one in two evacuees.

Some communities had to evacuate multiple times over the spring and summer.

‘OUR CHURCH HAS DISAPPEARED’

Wildfires are now “so dangerous and fast-moving” that evacuations are increasingly necessary, says Amy Cardinal Christianson, a Canadian Forest Service researcher who studies the effects of burns on Indigenous communities. 

This poses particular challenges for remote northern villages with few or no links to Canada’s large population centres in the south.

Anxieties are compounded by “a lack of trust that wildfire agencies will protect what the person or community values the most”, says Ms Christianson.

“That might be a trapline, a ceremonial site, a herd of cattle.”

But the fires have become so big and numerous of late that authorities have been forced to prioritise saving homes in larger towns or cities under threat, over all else.

Everything indigenous people do is rooted in “the forest, our territory”, says Mr Lucien Wabanonik, leader of the Lac-Simon community, his own home just steps from the woodland.

“Other people don’t realise the loss that this represents for us. It’s not a loss that we measure on a financial scale,” he explains.

“Sacred sites, burials, meeting places have disappeared with the fire,” he laments. “Our church had disappeared. It’s an immense loss.”

‘IT SMELLS OF DEATH’

This year marked the first time the Lac-Simon community had to evacuate due to forest fires. 

Fires have flared in the region before but never on this scale: Lightning sparked hundreds of fires at once during a weekend of storms in early June that lit up tinder-dry forests.

“It smells like death,” says Ms Jerome, adding that she sobs when she thinks of all the wildlife that got trapped by advancing fires.

The community has mourned their deaths in several ceremonies.

At the same time, however, the fires have prompted renewed interest in reviving indigenous practices that are currently curtailed.

Several indigenous communities are calling for a return to prescribed burns to prevent wildfires, which involve setting a specific area on fire under controlled conditions to clear dead branches, brush and other materials that could become fuel for massive blazes.

Their ancestors used cultural burning practices for millennia, but there are legal barriers to who can do it now.

“These burns produce a mosaic on the landscape, creating or keeping meadows open, and promoting earlier succession forests with lots of deciduous trees that are less likely to cause crown fires,” says Ms Christianson.

Firefighters can use these “natural fire breaks to fight an out-of-control wildfire”, she adds.

Adds Mr Wabanonik, “a major shift must be taken”. AFP

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