First Nations emergency professionals gather in Thunder Bay, Ontario ahead of wildfire season

With much of northern Ontario concerned about high water levels and the risk of flooding, First Nations emergency management professionals and organizations gathered in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in anticipation of the next wildfire season.

The first After Action Responders Forum, hosted by the Northern Ontario Emergency Management Task Force, was designed to give First Nations and those working in emergency management a chance to share their experiences, challenges and best practices from previous years.

“We wanted to give communities a voice, give them a platform where they could tell their stories…and how their experiences can help us move forward and provide community support,” Darrin said. Spence, president of emergency management. work group.

It was a significant opportunity for different communities, Spence said, especially since climate change is expected to bring more intense and frequent weather events that will disproportionately affect First Nations and northern communities.

The conference also followed a record wildfire season – with more hectares of land burned in Ontario in 2021 than in any other year in history and more than 3,000 people forced from their homes, including many remote first nations in the northwest.

“It’s always a traumatic event to be displaced from the community. There are always social issues, dealing with places that are unfamiliar to them, places that are not culturally familiar to them…it’ so is something we want to help communities,” Spence said.

It’s also why the task force is exploring a model that will see First Nations hosting other First Nations in an emergency, he said, a priority for many chiefs and community leaders in the region.

“Where we have a familiar face, we have people who speak the language, who know the culture, who understand where they’re from and who they are. That’s important,” Spence added.

Greg Meeches, who helped with the partial evacuation of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations during the 2021 wildfire season, says it was helpful to learn from the experiences of other northern Ontario First Nations forced to evacuate last year. (Logan Turner/CBC)

It’s something Greg Meeches was able to help secure for some Treaty 3 Wabaseemoong Independent Nations residents, who were forced to partially evacuate due to heavy smoke from the wildfires in proximity.

Meeches, who works in Wabaseemoong, contacted his home community of Long Plain Treaty 1 First Nation, about 110 kilometers west of Winnipeg, and arranged for rooms to be prepared. for some of the evacuees.

“We asked the chief and council to meet with the evacuees and assure them that they were safe there and would be treated as their own,” Meeches said, adding that there is now an established relationship. between the two communities in case they need to evacuate again. .

It’s also important that First Nations are prepared to receive evacuees after an emergency, said Derek Maud, former chief and now community emergency management coordinator for Lac Seul First Nation, which has taken in dozens of evacuees. during the 2021 wildfire season.

He said the First Nation sometimes only received 24 to 48 hours notice of people arriving at Lac Seul, so it was important they had trained volunteers and preparations made for food and drink. shelter. This is something the First Nation has incorporated into their emergency preparedness plan.

Derek Maud, Community Emergency Management Coordinator for Lac Seul First Nation, says he learned a lot from other conference attendees about best practices in creating a full-time EMS first responder program. . (Logan Turner/CBC)

While the conference was useful to talk about the upcoming wildfire season, Maud added that it was an important networking opportunity, given that the Community Emergency Management Coordinator position is relatively new to First Nations.

“Seeing what other people are doing and what I can integrate into my community – because we all share the same day-to-day situations, so we’re not really reinventing the wheel – that’s why I came here.”

One of those future projects, he added, is to improve emergency response in the community, including strengthening their fire department and creating a full-time EMS first responder program.

“Many First Nations, [their] the goal is to be self-sufficient and self-sufficient, and it is important to be prepared in case of an emergency.”