First Nation chief stays behind as community flees forest fire

First Nation chief stays behind as community flees forest fire

23 July 2011

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Canada — A steady stream of 20 Hercules flights have evacuated 2,800 people from Sandy Lake First Nation but Chief Adam Fiddler refuses to leave.

A relentless forest fire has crept within 9 kilometres of Sandy Lake, a community more than 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay along the Manitoba border.

“I have to stay,” the 38-year-old Oji-Cree chief told the Star from his band office.

“I have an obligation. A traditional role and a personal one, to keep everyone and the community safe,” said the married father of three.

As of Saturday, there were 117 forest fires burning through 500,000 hectares across northern Ontario and 3,951 people have been evacuated.

Fiddler is using untraditional means to stay in touch with Sandy Lake residents, who have been moved to 11 different areas as far south as Ottawa and Kitchener.

Each day he uploads a progress report on YouTube in both English and Oji-Cree. He’s even posted online helicopter surveys of the fire and videos of hungry dogs on the reserve being fed.

“We are doing okay. There is power and water,” he said confidently in Friday’s posting. “Your homes are safe, your community is safe.”

Fiddler stayed behind with 20 others to assist the now 40 firefighters who are on the ground in the area.

Bombarded with calls from anxious residents, the idea to use social media was suggested to Fiddler as a way to communicate so he doesn’t have to constantly repeat himself on the phone.

“We aren’t wireless here but we are connected to the Internet in the band office,” he said.

The evacuation of Sandy Lake began by the Canadian military on Monday evening. The first to be lifted out were the elderly, those with health problems, mothers and their children.

“But during the full evacuation on Tuesday, we tried to remain calm but you could see the flames,” Fiddler recalled. The weather was incredibly hot, the wind 50 km an hour and no rain was in sight.

The priority was to get people out as fast as they could, explained Fiddler.

Now, the search is on to try and reunite families with the help of the Canadian Red Cross.

“People went out and we didn’t know where they landed,” he said. “We have a mom in Winnipeg, a father in Ignace and the kids are in Moosonee.”

There are 280 Sandy Lake residents staying at a downtown Thunder Bay hotel.

They eat their meals together in a restaurant attached to the hotel — which has a large bar that is not in use while the Sandy Lake residents are there. Sandy Lake is a dry reserve, no alcohol or drugs are permitted.

Band council member Joe Kakegamic has been charged with keeping watch of the flock. “I keep telling everyone that we are in the best place,” he said. “Everything is pretty well provided for us here.”

But everyone is stressed about their homes and worried about those left behind, he said. “The chief is still there, he coordinated the evacuation. And he won’t leave,” Kakegamic added.

Three First Nations — Cat Lake, Keewaywin and Koocheching have been fully evacuated.

Not all Ontario communities have been welcoming to evacuees, said Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation Mike Metatawabin.

He has heard some Sandy Lake residents staying in Marathon have received racist taunts. About 200 First Nations evacuees are in Marathon.

The small municipality of Greenstone, population 4,900, has nearly 1,000 evacuees staying in town, said Mayor Ron Beaulieu. “We have them set up in the Catholic school, the public schools,” he said. “And we’ve organized different activities for them — floor hockey, baseball.”

Cloudy, cooler weather is helping the nearly 2,000 firefighters in the northwest, said Owen Vaughan, a fire information officer stationed in Dryden.

There are 99 active fires in the region but some are in various stages of control.

For the last couple of days the weather in the area has been damp and cool, pushing away some of the smoke and intense heat that prevents firefighting, he said.

“To get a fire out you need to get a hose around it on the ground and use buckets from the air,” he said.

“The old saying on the fire line is people don’t put out fires, Mother Nature does. We help,” he said.

Fires will not be declared out until infrared scanners, so sensitive they can pick up a lit cigarette from the air, show no activity for days, he added.

On Thursday and Friday, there was rain in Sandy Lake.

“But it is not sinking in,” said Fiddler via YouTube. “It burns underneath in the muskeg underground. It is still an active fire, not under control.”

The concern is if the weather gets hot again, smouldering embers will reignite the bush.

“Unfortunately today, it is a beautiful day here,” Fiddler said. “That isn’t good.”

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