‘Young brave men and women stayed behind’: Tsilhqot'in unite to fight B.C. wildfires
As wildfires rapidly approach Tl'etinqox First Nation, its leaders among several hundred digging in to protect what they love from 'fires that are literally around our community.'
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Cecil Grinder turns 57 next month, but wildfires raging at the edge of the retired RCMP officer’s home reserve — Tl’etinqox First Nation, one of six Tsilhqot'in bands — have made him “feel like 16.”
For the last three days, Grinder, his brother and a friend have been allowed to drive emergency supplies past otherwise-impenetrable police roadblocks leading to their small Tsilh’qotin community near Williams Lake, one of the areas most devastated by hundreds of wildfires across the province.
“We’ve been bringing water, food, propane — anything that’s needed — for the last three days,” he told Metro by phone from the road. “Other band members are doing the same thing.
“It all basically happened so fast because of the dry lightning. We’ve been driving through the fires on the highway to bring whatever’s gotta be brought out there … to keep their food and water up.”
As their five neighbouring Tsilhqot'in communities take in evacuees and offer help, several hundred of Tl’etinqox's roughly 540 residents and its leadership have decided to dig in to try to protect the community instead of evacuating. According to Indigenous Affairs early Monday afternoon, 12 First Nations in B.C. are affected by the fires, nine of them under evacuation orders so far.
“We have fires that are literally around our community,” community resident and band employee Pam Alphonse posted to her Facebook on Monday morning. “At this point, our community is the check in point for everyone, we staff are overwhelmed, been on the go since Friday.
“Our members have been coming together and helping out … Last night we fed about 150 people! … Thank you to those helping us.”
Grinder, a band councillor, is one of several Alphonse singled out for gratitude for their efforts.
Even though Grinder served for 20 years in Canada’s police force, Metro asked, surely volunteering to drive through actively burning forests has him a little worried?
“Well, my spouse and family, they’re always worried,” he laughed. “But for me I get excited — whoo! My heart pumps, but I’m trained for that in the RCMP.”
Metro reached him while driving for his new assignment: to escort 24 elders from the community to safety and by convoy to a previously planned elders’ gathering, accompanied in more risky stretches by police cruisers.
When he left Tl’etinqox First Nation on Sunday, a number of the community’s young people were getting last-minute firefighting certificates and training, and that several of the band’s leaders had also stayed behind despite being ordered to leave.
“Even though we’re under evacuation orders, they decided to save our homes,” he explained. “We’re there on the front lines, doing our best to keep our community and houses safe.
“So far every thing is still alright, but we’re right at the border line; a neighbour’s house got burned down just off the reserve. Chief Joe Alphonse, a few of our councillors, and our young brave men and women stayed behind to look after the community. I’m worried but they’re in great hands and they’re looking after each other.”
He said the six member bands that make up the Tsilh’qotin National Government — also headed by Alphonse — “are all helping each other” during the crisis.
“We’re all Tsilh’qotin people, so it’s devastating to see all that burned up,” he lamented. “But we’re here to protect our lands at no matter what cost. In other communities that stayed behind, a lot of young guys saved a lot of the houses.”
According to Indigenous Affairs on Monday afternoon, "Provincial officials ordered an immediate general evacuation order. However, several band members are staying to fight the fire. The province has indicated that the fire is close to the highway and it is difficult to transport fuel. The Chief is currently part of an air reconnaissance of the fire."
Meanwhile, community members staying behind and those who evacuated alike are holding twice-daily prayer circles, and said all are welcome in their Williams Lake offices, including drummers.
“Please join for prayers every morning at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. at night to end the day,” one band government employee posted to Facebook, a site many in the community who still have internet access through their phones are using to coordinate relief efforts and post offers of help. “We pray to the creator and our ancestors for our sacred land which we lived off for survival.
“We pray for our people, animals, birds,water, firefighters, organizers, the cooks, the travellers, leaders, and the risk-takers. We pray for the fire, and that it will be controlled.”