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First Nation thanks New West as fire truck joins B.C. wildfire battle

Tl'etinqox members, refusing to evacuate in hopes of saving their reserve, put Royal City's gift into action to save their homes.

New Westminster Coun. Chuck Puchmayr stands beside Tl'etinqox First Nation Chief Joe Alphonse — in front of the decommissioned fire truck the city donated for the Tsilhqot'in band's protection this week.

Supplied/Facebook/Joe Alphonse

New Westminster Coun. Chuck Puchmayr stands beside Tl'etinqox First Nation Chief Joe Alphonse — in front of the decommissioned fire truck the city donated for the Tsilhqot'in band's protection this week.

The British Columbia First Nation defying evacuation orders — digging in to fight approaching wildfires — has thanked the City of New Westminster for making an unusually long-distance fire call last week.

Over the weekend, Tl'etinqox First Nation near Williams Lake put into front-line action a fire truck dispatched from the Royal City more than 600 kilometres away.

Metro spoke with the band's Chief Joe Alphonse, who also heads the Tsilhqot'in National Government, of which the band is one of six members, on Sunday.

"The fire took a good run at us last night," he said, adding that the wildfires raging towards the edge of the reserve "jumped the river" — but that the First Nation's fire fighting efforts kept it at bay.

Those efforts included a decommissioned New Westminster Fire Department truck delivered thanks to City Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, who appeared smiling in a photograph Alphonse posted on his Facebook account on Wednesday.

New Westminster fire crews trained the First Nation in using the equipment, and Puchmayr spent four days helping the First Nation and nearby reserves in their efforts, saying an emotional farewell on Sunday.

"After four intense days of running food, medicine, and fire fighting equipment between Williams lake and Tl'etinqox (Anaham) plus Red Stone reserves," he posted to Facebook, "… I have developed a great respect for forest firefighters and have witnessed such a high skill level of response by First Nations crews."

It's not the first connection between New Westminster and members of the Tsilhqot'in Nation. But this week's fire fighting gift, which had actually been planned before wildfires began as a reconciliation gesture, hoped to turn the tables on a more painful incident many decades earlier.

On Tuesday, Puchmayr drew attention to the 1865 hanging of renowned Chief Ahan in the city, writing on Facebook: "152 years ago today, chief Ahan, of the Tsilhqot'in Nation, was executed in the gallows at the New Westminster court house. He has since been (exonerated)."

Alphonse expressed his gratitude to the city Wednesday.

"We are grateful for the tremendous outpouring of support from outside of our community," Alphonse wrote. "We recieved a fire truck from New Wesminister, donations of food from various group and organisations, donations of fire fighting equipment, generators.

"I can say we are very appreciative of all the help we have recieved and finally can't say enough of all the fire fighters and heavy equipment operators who continue to protect our community."

Meanwhile, two dozen elders who were escorted to safety by the band's leadership are now safe in an Abbotsford motel, confirmed Tl'etinqox Coun. Cecil Grinder, after traveling by bus caravan through active wildfire areas by — at riskier stretches of the trip accompanied by police.

Now, Alphonse announced that barring a change of weather it appeared "the worst is over" of their ordeal — and lauded his community members' bravery in staying to protect their lands and homes.

"It has been a stressful week or so in our community," Alphonse said, "but I am grateful to say as a community we haven't lost any structures or have had an injuries and I believe the worst is over for us … Our thoughts go out to the rest of the province as well."

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