Sheri Lysons, Fire Chief, Adams Lake Indian Band with her daughter and grandson. Photo provided by Lilia Yumagulova.
By Lilia Yumagulova
A heavy snowfall covers the burnt landscape with a white blanket. We are driving through the charred landscape of the Sparks Lake wildfire, a human-caused burn of 95,980 hectares. Bright lights of transports carrying essential goods in the heavy snowstorm give us a feeling of entering a hyperspace.
At Chase, a town of around 3,000 people, we turn to drive across the bridge to enter the Adams Lake Indian Band. Sahhaltkum (Sexqeltqin) Indian Reserve #4 located on the western side of Little Shuswap Lake is one of the main locations for administrative buildings, including the main band office and the fire hall.
The Adams Lake Indian Band belongs to the Secwepemc Nation and is a member of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council. Adams Lake was once a gathering place for neighbors to meet, socialize, and gather roots and berries: “The shorelines of lakes and rivers have archaeological remains of pit-houses where the Secwepemc people resided in the surrounding premises that are as old as nine thousand years’ old. We are often reminded by the Elders that our people have been here for centuries. Our main source of economy was fishing, hunting, trapping and gathering berries which all led to developing networks, social and political systems”. (Our history, Adams Lake Indian Band)
Silhouetted against the darkness of November night, warm light pours out of a small window defining the heavy snowfall. In the deep quiet of the night, I look inside. Sitting around the table, multiple generations have come together for their weekly firefighting practice. Family is the first word that comes to mind.
Family forged through fire
I knock on the door. Sheri Lysons, a Secwepemc matriarch, opens the door with a smile, her beautiful long hair framing a strong body of a mother of many and a grandmother of five. Sheri became the Fire Chief on August 1, 2021, during one of the most turbulent summers that her crew has been through. Around the table women and men of different ages and walks of life, First People indigenous to this land and Second People that came from elsewhere, make up the Adams Lake Indian Band Fire Department.
This family was forged through fire. During a very difficult transitional time for the fire department and extreme fire conditions that they had to fight, “the team stood up and created a stronger department that we could have imagined before the fire,” says Sheri.
Sheri is inviting us to an Indian taco dinner with fry bread lovingly cooked by her mother. As we fill our plates, conversation turns to the difficult summer. The fires were but one disaster, layered on top of the ongoing pandemic and the deep cuts of residential school trauma with which the communities have been living as the discoveries came into national focus, as part of the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation’s mandate to document the truth of survivors, families, communities. In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir announced that the remains of 215 children had been found near the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Sheri’s mom was the first of the 14 children in her family who did not go to this school. The finding of children has brought up the deep trauma of colonization and genocide across Secwepemc lands, a pain deeply shared by Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island. In June, the record-breaking heat dome brought temperatures of nearly 50 degrees Celsius, killing nearly 600 people across British Columbia. The massive Sparks Lake wildfire and severe smoke that followed were yet another test to the resilience of people.
Keeping pace with the flames
John Leonard has been fighting fires for 35 years. Through the watchfulness that he developed over the years connected to his ancestral relationship to the land, he can read the landscape and fire behaviours in a way one watches an old friend. John is 62. He knows the strength it takes to keep pace with the fire as a wildland firefighter. He puts on his 50-pound backpack, and 10-pound weight on each ankle, and heads out on to the land to walk five to eight kilometres, training his body and mind to be ready for the fire season. “One day, I will take my crew to Australia,” says John with a kind twinkle in his eyes.
Capacity building and volunteer retention is a big challenge for a small community. The Indigenous fire department offers opportunities to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to start at 16 years old compared to 18 at non-Indigenous fire departments. Children of firefighters are allowed to join at 14 years old if their parents are willing to take responsibility for them.
“They take it very seriously and learn very early that this is a place to come work and learn,” says Sheri.
Driven by the love for the fire and their community, the youth around the table share their motivations. Being a firefighter offers a sense of purpose and belonging. It also gives critical life skills and training opportunities such as advanced First Aid and confined search and rescue. “Fire fighting is controlled pyromania,” says Sheri with a laugh. There is some joke to that.
“You are going to love this more than anything else you will do in life. You will always come back to this career. It just holds on to you and does not let go.”
Connecting to place and people through fire service
As the youth share their stories, it becomes apparent that the people around the circle are indeed firefighting families. Multiple generations, parents, children, and grandchildren that have devoted themselves to their love of helping and service.
Kim Hagen, a soft spoken firefighter of European descent with a golden braid under her tuque, is the daughter of a firefighter and a mother of five children, two of whom have joined the department. Kim stepped in when there was a shortage within the crew to ensure that trucks could be deployed. As we move from tacos to dessert, Kim speaks about the importance of Second People learning from the First Peoples’ innate respect for the land. “Sometimes it feels like we do not have culture, the same connection to place and people.”
Sheri and Kim reflect on sending our children to respond to fires:
“We knew that there was danger. We also knew that people would lay down their lives, if that is what was needed.”
This knowledge is based on months and years of training that leads to the trust in the skillset and the shared passion that the mothers have for firefighting. A passion that connects people, fire, and land.
As the evening wraps up with tattoo demonstrations, laughter, and Sasquatch stories, we step outside where the snow has stopped falling. As we drive away into the darkness of the night, a light stays on at the fire department. The light of the people whom I just met. People who are always prepared to help their community and anyone else who needs it.