This research identifies ways to reduce negative impacts of evacuations in First Nation communities.
By Tara K. McGee, Amy Christianson, Kyla Mottershead, and Henok Asfaw
The First Nations Wildfire Evacuation Partnership brings together researchers at the University of Alberta and Canadian Forest Service; seven First Nations in Alberta (Dene Tha’ First Nation and Whitefish Lake First Nation), Saskatchewan (Lac La Ronge Indian Band (Stanley Mission) and Onion Lake Cree Nation), and Ontario (Deer Lake First Nation, Sandy Lake First Nation, and Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation); and agencies that carry out or provide support during wildfire evacuations. The research team, together with research assistants, interviewed more than 200 residents to learn about First Nation peoples’ wildfire evacuation experiences and identify ways to reduce negative impacts of evacuations.
We found that all participating First Nations carried out their evacuations effectively in difficult circumstances. There are many examples of adaptive resilience, where decisions made during the evacuation helped to minimize negative impacts. For example, First Nations with road access organized transportation using school buses and provided evacuees with financial assistance to pay for gas. An evacuee from Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation shared the following about the benefit of having time to prepare to evacuate:
“Through the radio… people would call telling us what’s going to happen. People actually stopped by the house too … ‘there’ll be a bus here going around, gather all your stuff for at least a week,’ they said. At least we had one day to prepare…”
Innovative communication methods were used, including YouTube video updates by the Chief of Sandy Lake First Nation. Efforts were also made to keep families together. In Dene Tha’ First Nation which was evacuated due to smoke, residents were allowed back to their community to check on their property and pick up supplies, as described by one evacuee:
“We came home one time ‘cause we needed some clothes. They allowed us to come over… Like there was cops on the road. They said they give us just 45 minutes to get what we need. I didn’t wanna buy more clothes.”
Emergency Managers in First Nations
Although First Nations are responsible for preparing for and responding during an emergency, they often do not have the resources to employ an emergency manager full-time. In many of the First Nations in our partnership, the person responsible for emergency management was usually employed full-time in another position and carried out their emergency manager role in a voluntary part-time capacity. It is important that First Nations have a dedicated full-time emergency manager whose job focuses on prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery from all hazards. This person would also be responsible for cost recovery following an evacuation.
Our research results clearly show the importance of giving as much warning time as possible so that residents can prepare to evacuate. In Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation, the evacuation was carried out over three days, which helped residents prepare to leave and reduced distress. Preparation time also means that residents are less likely to leave behind important items such as medications. Providing advance warning also enabled residents outside their reserve to return and get organized before they need to evacuate.
Transportation needs to be available in First Nations to ensure that residents can evacuate when required. Transportation should be arranged for large families, those who do not have access to a vehicle, and those in remote areas of the reserve. During their evacuation in 2014 and 2015, Stanley Mission (Lac La Ronge Indian Band) successfully organized bus transportation for a multi-stage evacuation to host communities as far south as Regina. As well, differences in vehicle registration and insurance requirements for reserves versus the province should be considered.
Culturally appropriate practices
Evacuating First Nation residents from reserves to a town or city, often a considerable distance away from home, added further stress on evacuees. When circumstances allow, emergency managers should consider having First Nations stay in their traditional territory or with nearby Indigenous communities that can provide culturally appropriate assistance and support. This would also reduce the racism that some evacuees experienced when they were hosted in towns. Having designated safe havens from wildfire smoke on reserves would help to reduce health impacts and may avoid evacuation in some situations. If evacuation to a town or city is necessary, efforts should be made to provide comfortable and culturally appropriate accommodation where large families can stay together, with private room options (hotel rooms, schools, offices, camps, etc.). A Deer Lake First Nation evacuee describes the importance of this:
“With all the community members sharing under one roof, like you can’t have rest. No rest at all. Because some of the community members, they don’t sleep at night… So those people that have bad backs or health issues, I think they need more rest. I don’t know, it just didn’t work out for me, but I had to because I had no choice.”
Culturally appropriate support including health services (mental and physical), translation to Indigenous languages, and traditional food and beverage services also need to be provided.
Keep families together
Our research findings clearly show the importance of keeping families together during wildfire evacuations. Separation of families occurred in most First Nations involved in our research. In Sandy Lake First Nation, residents were sent to 12 towns throughout Ontario and into Manitoba. This scattering of residents caused considerable distress for residents, detailed below by a Sandy Lake First Nation evacuee.
“I was so worried about my family; there was a time you don’t know for days what’s going on. There was no information, or how to find out, or where to call for your family, there was no way. And I don’t think I heard from my family, once they left this community I didn’t hear from them for maybe three, four days until I knew where they were. So that was worrisome.”
First Nations are dependent on their extended family units for their well-being, so if families are separated because members are sent to different locations, this reduces support available to residents. It is also important to ensure that Elders are prioritized and supported during an evacuation.
Make information available
Information is vital during an evacuation. Residents need to know how to evacuate and where to go, and they need information about the status of the fire and the safety of their family members, home, and community. Chiefs and Councillors, community leaders staying with evacuees, and residents who stayed behind during the wildfires provided valuable information to evacuees.
Reduce costs to evacuees
Costs associated with the evacuation also affected evacuees and Bands. Many evacuees did not have extra money to pay upfront for expenses associated with the evacuation, including food and gas. There were differences in how funding was provided in Alberta, with Whitefish Lake First Nation evacuees receiving funding during the evacuation, and evacuees from Dene Tha’ receiving a purchase order for a local grocery store at the end of the evacuation. In Saskatchewan, evacuees received food vouchers (ranging from $40 to $80) from the Red Cross during the immediate evacuation and before their return trip home. In Ontario, most evacuees did not receive financial compensation, which was an additional burden for residents during and after the evacuation. Some First Nations experienced significant delays in recovering the costs of their evacuation, and some were not reimbursed for the total costs.
“…When a disaster happens, keep everything together, because if you don’t you’re just gonna lose money, because that’s what we did and we’re still recovering. We still haven’t finished recovering from 2011.” – Whitefish Lake First Nation administrator
Talk about recovery
Following an evacuation, it is important to bring community members together to discuss the evacuation as part of the recovery process. During our research, we discovered that some evacuees had not discussed their experiences with anyone before our interviews. Being able to talk about this traumatic experience is important for residents and community leaders involved in the evacuation process.
We sincerely thank the residents who spoke to us about their experiences. Thank you to the First Nations and agencies involved in the First Nations Wildfire Evacuation Partnership. This research was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (Partnership Development Grant), and the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research. https://www.eas.ualberta.ca/awe/
Tara K. McGee is a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. Born and raised in Ontario, Tara’s social science research on the human dimensions of wildfire spans 20 years and has included studies on wildfire prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. She is the academic lead for the First Nations Wildfire Evacuation Partnership. Tara completed the research with Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation, and assisted with the research with WhitefishLake First Nation (Atikameg 459).
Amy Christianson is Cree-Métis from Treaty 8 and is a Fire Social Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada. Amy’s research focuses on Indigenous peoples and fire management. Amy led the research with Onion Lake First Nation and Lac La Ronge Indian Band, and assisted with data collection in Whitefish Lake First Nation (Atikameg 459).
Kyla Mottershead completed her MA research at the University of Alberta with Dene Tha’ First Nation. She now works at Alberta Health Services.
Henok Asfaw completed his PhD research at the University of Alberta with Sandy Lake First Nation. He was also involved in the research with Deer Lake First Nation.
As part of HazNet’s soft peer review process, we asked a community member and a practitioner on the ground about their perspectives on evacuation, as described in this article.
The evacuation that occurred back in 2015 was so disorganized. Everyone was transported out of the community by school bus/or personal vehicles. It was very uncomfortable as the school bus seats are hard, and there is no air-conditioning. Some elders are in wheelchairs but a school bus does not have a lift. A charter bus would be much more accommodating for elders.
– Evacuee, Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan
“One thing to consider when talking about transportation during an evacuation is that school buses are not acceptable for long trips. They do have not washrooms and for Elders and children, it is just unacceptable. Most of our band members are being transported many hours away from their home communities. Storage for everyone traveling is also very limited on a school bus. We had problems with walkers and wheelchairs being transported. If an accident were to happen while in transport the outcome would be tragic.
Also, we need to think about the feelings our Residential School survivors have when boarding buses. This one action brings up many emotions for all survivors as this was how they would have been taken away from their families. For some, even the smell of the diesel gas is a trigger. The ride itself has to be devastating!
I know the cost is higher for chartered buses but it must start being the norm. Also, we need to have more … First Nations communities helping each other so that the impact is not so devastating. Evacuations should be to neighbouring communities first before we are sending families to far-away big cities. And of course, this all goes back to every First Nation having a plan in place and making those arrangements in writing first. If plans are made beforehand it gives each First Nation the control they need and deserve during a crisis. Every single detail about your people should be thought of during the planning stage.”
– Michelle Vandevord, Manager, Saskatchewan Emergency Protective Services, First Nations Emergency Management
Additional resources on the topic (external link)
This guide, funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), makes recommendations on how to better address the needs of First Nations communities who have been evacuated in order to avoid further harm to their residents. These recommendations address the need to develop pre-event planning strategies, guidelines to better manage the evacuation process itself including initiatives and services to increase the support to evacuating communities, and guidance to host communities to better meet the needs of evacuated residents.