EAST PRAIRIE METIS SETTLEMENT, Alberta (AP) — Carrol Johnston counted her blessings as she stood in the barren spot where her home was destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire that forced her to flee her northern Alberta community a few years ago. two months.

Her family escaped unharmed, though her beloved cat, Missy, didn’t make it out before a “fireball” hit the house in early May. But her late mother’s inherited peony bushes survived and the blackened May Day tree planted in memory of her longtime partner is producing new shoots, hopeful signs as she prepares to start anew in the East Prairie Métis settlement. , about 240 miles (385 kilometers). ) northwest of Edmonton.

“I just can’t leave,” said Johnston, 72, who shared a house with her son and daughter-in-law. “Why would you want to leave such beautiful memories?”

The worst wildfire season in Canadian history is driving indigenous communities from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, blanketing them in thick smoke, destroying homes and forests, and threatening important cultural activities such as hunting, fishing, and food gathering. native plants.

Thousands of fires have burned more than 42,000 square miles (110,000 square kilometers) across the country so far. On Tuesday, nearly 900 fires were burning, most of them out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Wildland Fire Center website.

The fires are not uncommon on indigenous lands, but they are now occurring over such a large area that many more people are experiencing them at the same time, and some for the first time, stoking fears of what a hotter, drier future will bring. . especially to communities where traditions run deep.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Raymond Supernault, president of the East Prairie Métis Settlement, where he said more than 85% of the 129-square-mile (334-square-kilometer) settlement burned in the first wildfire. there in more than 60 years. Fourteen houses and 60 other structures were destroyed by the intense and rapid fire that caused the evacuation of almost 300 people and decimated the forested land.

“In the blink of an eye, we lost so much…it was devastating. I can’t stress that enough,” said Supernault, who said he hasn’t seen any elk or moose, both important food sources, since the fire.

“We don’t get in the car and go to the IGA” to buy groceries, Supernault said. “Let’s go to the mountain.”

In Canada, 5% of the population identifies as Indigenous—First Nation, Métis, or Inuit—and an even smaller percentage lives in predominantly Indigenous communities. Yet more than 42% of bushfire evacuations have been from communities that are more than half indigenous, said Amy Cardinal Christianson, Parks Canada indigenous fire specialist.

As of last week, nearly 23,000 people from 75 indigenous settlements had to evacuate this year, according to Indigenous Services Canada. More than 3,600 people from 15 First Nations reserves in five provinces had been evacuated as of Thursday, the agency said.

It’s not uncommon for indigenous communities to evacuate repeatedly, Christianson said. A recent analysis of Canada’s Wildfire Evacuation database found that 16 communities were evacuated five or more times between 1980 and 2021, all but two of them First Nations reserves, said Christianson, who participated in the analysis conducted. by the Canadian Forest Service.

The fires are now “so dangerous and moving so fast” that evacuations are becoming increasingly necessary, a challenge in some remote communities where there may be only one road or no road at all, said Christianson, who is mixed-race.

Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and fire chief in Red Deer, Alberta, a province where some 7,600 square miles (19,800 square kilometers) have already burned, compared with just over 695 square miles ( 1800 square kilometers) in total. of 2022, he said that some places that burned again this year have not fully recovered from previous fires.

“It’s going to take a long time,” McMullen said, calling it the worst fire season in Canadian history. “These are life-altering events.”

Christianson said the effects will be felt for generations, because the intense heat is burning the ground and making it difficult for trees and other plants to regenerate.

She said indigenous communities are increasingly vulnerable because they are often left out of decisions about forest management and fire response, and often cannot afford to hire emergency managers. Also, when fires affect urban centers at the same time, fire suppression is shifted to larger communities.

Indigenous communities “really want to be leaders in fire management on their land,” including a return to preventive burning that the government has long suppressed, Christianson said.

Algonquins of Barriere Lake in northern Quebec were evacuated in June due to thick smoke from wildfires that reached 9 miles (15 kilometers) and nearly encircled the reservation where 350 to 400 people live, often miles away. said Chief Casey Ratt, who had never experienced a wildfire before this year.

“Last year my wife and I were talking about how many fires there were in Alberta, so boom! There were so many in Quebec this year,” Ratt said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, now we’re dealing with wildfires like they’re out west.'”

But it wasn’t a total surprise, either, Ratt said, because summer heat is more intense and ice forms later in the winter and melts faster in the spring. That lessens their ability to ice fish and hunt moose and beaver, which often requires crossing a lake to an island.

“Something is going on,” said Ratt, who believes climate change is largely to blame. “I think this will be the norm in the future.”

The biggest concern is whether cultural traditions that have been passed down from generations of elders will survive into the future, said Supernault, of the East Prairie Métis Settlement.

“Our land is changing… and our traditional way of life is now on hold,” Supernault said. “You can’t put a price on culture and traditional loss.”


Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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