VANCOUVER — The leader of a First Nation nearly encircled by blazes during one of the worst wildfires seasons in British Columbia's history says building firefighting capacity is urgent as another season approaches.
The Tsilqhot'in First Nation released a review of the 2017 wildfire season Wednesday detailing its experience and making 33 recommendations, including infrastructure upgrades, sustained funding for firefighting training and a one-stop reimbursement process for First Nations.
Chief Joe Alphonse said while there have always been fires in the region, climate change is making them more common and severe, so there's no time to waste.
"If you roll the dice and think this won't happen again, you're not going to win," Alphonse said.
"Right now this year, we're probably looking at the driest conditions we've ever seen in the Chilcotin. We had no winter up there."
The 2017 wildfires burned more than 1.2 million hectares of land in B.C., cost $600 million and forced 65,000 people from their homes.
The Tsilqhot'in made headlines when about one third of its members refused to evacuate their territory and stayed to fight the blazes instead.
"We live in a fire zone, always have. Our nation, our elders, generation after generation, kids growing up will hear their grandparents talk about fighting fires on horseback, hauling buckets of water from the rivers up to the fires," Alphonse said.
Alphonse has been a vocal critic of the wildfire response by the federal and provincial governments, saying their failure to recognize Indigenous knowledge and firefighting skills posed a greater threat to the First Nation than the fires themselves.
"When the fires hit, people automatically assumed we don't know what we're doing," he said.
But he also told a crowd at the University of British Columbia that the six communities that comprise the Tsilqhot'in lack some basic infrastructure and resources that would better equip them to protect themselves and hope to fireproof their homes and communities.
The report, called The Fires Awakened Us, does not propose a specific budget for implementing its recommendations, which also includes more fire halls, geotechnical work to stabilize banks and an Indigenous-led emergency centre with culturally-appropriate meals and other features.
B.C.'s minister of forests, Doug Donaldson, said the government has begun acting on feedback it received from the First Nation, as well as 108 recommendations made in an independent report last May to overhaul disaster response practices after the 2017 wildfire and flood seasons.
He said the province believes it has already addressed 18 per cent of the recommendations in the Tsilqhot'in report, including incorporating local knowledge in emergency responses and providing firefighting training.
It has also increased the annual wildfire budget to $101 million from $64 million, he said.
"There's no question that the wildfires of 2017 had a disproportionate and devastating effect on your community," Donaldson said.
"We have more work to do and we need to do it in the spirit of reconciliation."
Treasury Board President Joyce Murray said First Nations communities have incurred "extraordinary" costs protecting their communities from wildfires. She said the federal government is working with them and the provincial government to ensure all eligible expenses are reimbursed and recovery continues.
"We know that there was record setting fires in 2018 as well so we have to expect this is going to be a continuing challenge," she said.
Last summer, wildfires burned an even larger area than 2017 and destroyed 21 homes in the Tahltan Nation's community at Telegraph Creek in the province's northwest.
Neither Donaldson nor Murray immediately committed any funding toward implementing the recommendations.
Donaldson said they just received the report and Murray said negotiations are "underway," adding the federal budget includes $211 million over five years for emergency management.
The report says adopting emergency response rooted in local traditions and values is an opportunity for reconciliation in an area that is complex but critical and could be applied to resolving "many First Nation jurisdictional battles."
The change should be Indigenous-led but supported by the provincial and federal governments, it says.
"Recognizing First Nation values and decision making require courage and leadership by all governments."
Alphonse said the community is sharing its experience in hopes that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can learn from it.
"We went through that, we experienced it. We want to share our experience to help other communities," he said.
"We better be prepared. That's my message."