Current Problems


Emergency co-ordinators missing in wildfire-prone communities

May 10, 2024

By Matteo Cimellaro | NewsUrban Indigenous Communities in Ottawa |

Andrea Stelter stands for a portrait near the Skwlāx band office. Catastrophic wildfires hit the Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw First Nation in August 2023. Photo by Jen Osborne / Canada’s National Observer Listen to article

Canada’s National Observer: Last year in the hot spot of Alberta, 25,000 people were displaced from their homes during a wildfire season that broke historical records.

In response, Ottawa announced that 48 First Nations in the province will receive funding for an emergency management co-ordinator. The decision came even though there were 161 fire emergencies in First Nations across Canada, producing 93 evacuations. In the B.C. Interior, the majority of the 54 First Nations still don’t have anyone in the emergency co-ordinator position.

Some suggest that emergency management co-ordinators are essential to ensure a smoother and better-organized community response and recovery if disaster strikes. In reporting last wildfire seasonCanada’s National Observer discussed the importance of the role with Andrea Stelter, emergency program co-ordinator for Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw.

A screenshot of the Fire Weather Index from the federal government. 

She explained how she chased funding that led to training and more firefighting equipment and developed plans to protect culturally significant artifacts. Her strategy also protected important IT and computer infrastructure for band workers, allowing the First Nation’s administration to return to work on the rebuild quickly. She also helped with damage assessment following the wildfire that destroyed 34 structures in Skwlāx.

“When I took on this position two years ago, I wanted to demonstrate the difference in recovery … that you have when you have somebody dedicated to this position,” Stelter said in a previous interview.

First Nations without the position are not so lucky. Many of them are relying on administrative staff who need to work on emergency management and preparedness, while also applying for essential grants off the side of their desks, Stelter told Canada’s National Observer.

James Moxon, director general for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), told Canada’s National Observer in a media briefing that only 13 of 203 First Nations in British Columbia have an ISC-supported co-ordinator position. Moxon also said there was one co-ordinator in the Yukon.

Last wildfire season saw 68 per cent of the Northwest Territories’ population displaced by wildfires, including several First Nations. K’atl’odeeche First Nation, for example, was evacuated twice, with the first evacuation taking place following Mother’s Day.

Canada’s National Observer asked how many emergency co-ordinators were in the Northwest Territories, but the department didn’t get back in time for publication.

Otttawa is ensuring advance payments are available to First Nations who need support ahead of this year’s wildfire season, Jennifer Kozelj, press secretary of Minister of Indigenous Services Canada Patty Hajdu, said in a statement.

There are now 253 emergency management coordinators across Canada; in addition, ISC-trained employees are equipped to support emergency management responses in First Nations if surge capacity strikes, she added.

“ISC will be there to ensure no community is left behind before, during or after a disaster strikes,” Kozelj said.

So far, the start of the 2024 wildfire season is looking better than last year’s, however, the risk remains high with drought conditions across Canada’s West. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported around 90 fires burning as of noon Thursday, including 12 classified as out of control.

Just over 176 square kilometres have burned so far, said Julienne Morissette, director of wildland fire research for Natural Resources Canada. The number is well below the 25-year average of 510 square kilometres. 

Screenshot from the slides of a media briefing update for this year’s wildfire season. 

Morissette points to colder weather, a longer thaw and more precipitation than last year. However, hotter temperatures on the horizon coupled with drought make human-made and even lightning-caused fires a possibility. 

“That is why we urge Canadians to follow the restrictions of local authorities,” Morissette said. 

Of the current fires, 40 are burning in Alberta, 24 in British Columbia and 10 in Manitoba. Four fires in New Brunswick are the only ones in Atlantic Canada, while Ontario has two and Quebec one.

— With files from Mia Robson / The Canadian Press

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative 

Updates and corrections

 | Corrections policy

May 10, 2024, 07:19 pm

This article was updated to reflect comment from Jennifer Kozelj, press secretary of Minister of Indigenous Services Canada Patty Hajdu.

May 10th 2024