The Grand Council of the Crees

The Fire of Nemaska

The Fire of Nemaska - Five Days in July by Chief George Wapachee

Posted: 2002-12-01

You could smell the earth burn as we approached the outskirts of the community on the gravel road leading to Champion Lake, just a half-hour before midnight.

We were one of the last groups of people to arrive from the Old Nemaska Post following a distress call for everyone to return to the Cree village of Nemaska, a small community of over five hundred and fifty (550) people in Northern Quebec.

Moments earlier, I barely managed to avoid a large moose who had darted across the path of my moving vehicle, no doubt trying to escape the approaching forest fire that lighted the far horizon on an otherwise dark northern night. I had a 30-30 hunting rifle with me and I debated whether I should go after it, when as usual, my hunter's instinct took over. However, considering the circumstances, why add more misery to its harried plight for safety, so I drove on.

*****
Nad-nemaskawanoo Days

Earlier in the week, I took my family on our annual pilgrimage to the birthplace of our ancestors through an event called 'Nad-nemaskawanoo Days' (Visit to the Old Nemaska Post). The Old Nemaska Post was our original homeland, a beautiful place where I had spent my boyhood years growing up under the care of my grandparents. The trip takes approximately two (2) hours of rough gravel road used to maintain an existing Transmission Line to a canoe/boat landing on Lake Nemaska. Then it's another one (1) hour by water to the Old Post, depending on the speed of your motor or if the lake is calm, a combined distance of well over one hundred (100) kilometres.

The event is a social gathering and celebration of our people, the Nemaska Cree. It is held during the first week in July, when most of the community gets to camp out and enjoy each other's company from the long winter. It is a time to briefly get away from the comforts of modern living and relive the days of old. Through the years we have slowly started to restore the Old Post with the construction of small log cabins for most of our Elders, and other original inhabitants. By and large, it has become a quiet retreat for all during the summer periods. There are planned games for the young children, traditional walking out ceremonies, log sawing/wood chopping contests, tipi erecting contests, checkers tournament, canoe racing, fishing derbies, etc...

The week would culminate with the arrival of the traditional canoe brigades that began from our community at the start of the event, and the holding of the grand 'feast' where everyone gets to help out in its preparation and of course, the Chief gets to deliver his annual speech.
It is a time for our young people to get to know their historical 'roots' and where they came from. 'Nemaskau Eenouch' is translated in the Cree language as the 'people from the land of plentiful fish'... truly a fisherman's paradise of peace and tranquillity.

*****
Old Nemaska Post

Historically, prior to the arrival of the Europeans and like most isolated northern native settlements, the Old Nemaska Post started out as the traditional gathering place during the summer periods for the, then, very nomadic Cree who hunted and fished within the surrounding area. With the advent of the Fur Trade, it was common for the Hudson's Bay Company, a fur trader, to set up its operations to take advantage of an available supplier (the Cree trapper) for its own economic needs. In this respect, the Old Nemaska Post was a junction point for those people who wished to trade furs for goods in Rupert's House from Mistassini, Nitchequon, Neoskweskau and Waswanipi. During the days of the canoe brigades, an early means of transporting supplies through the river network, the Old Post also served as a base of operation for the Cree voyageurs from the inland Posts of Mistassini, Neoskweskau and Waswanipi. The Cree from these villages would leave the women and children here to fish and prepare a food supply of dried smoked fish to be used on the return trip home after the men had returned from their freight runs from Rupert's House. The Old Nemaska Post eventually took the form of a permanent settlement, heavily occupied during the summer months and a ghost town during the winter, until its abandonment in the late 1960's.

During the early 1960's, the Cree people at the Old Post had been made aware of increased activity and forays into the region from the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and it was during this time that the people were informed of a major hydro-electricity project being planned within the area. There were plans to create several large reservoirs through a series of dams and dykes, called the Nottaway/Broadback/Rupert Complex and we were best advised to "move out of the area or else we would be swimming around like the beaver". In those days, the Cree were not as organized as they are now, and I suspect that when the Hudson's Bay Company heard of this new development, this gave them the added opportunity to plan to close their store as they were an isolated outpost operating with a small deficit annually. Therefore, towards the late 1960's, the Cree people of Nemaska, were faced with the sad prospect and dilemma of not having a store upon which they had depended on for so long, for many things, began leaving inland to Mitassini (Mistissini) or to the coastal community of Rupert's House (Waskaganish).

The James Bay Project

In the early 1970's, the proponents of the massive James Bay Hydro-Electric Project made their intentions known by deciding to develop La Grande Complex further to the north as opposed to the originally proposed Nottaway/Broadback/Rupert Complex, but by then we had already left the area, feeling somewhat taken for a ride.

It was about this time that the James Bay Crees decided to get organized through its political organization under the young leadership of Grand Chief Billy Diamond representing the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) and filed a court injunction to stop the James Bay Project, claiming our rights were being violated, and that we are not 'squatters' on our own land. Following countless hours of court testimonies and numerous Cree witnesses, Justice Malouf rendered the famous landmark decision that, we do have rights and they should be respected, thereby bringing the James Bay Project to a halt.

Much to our dismay, the court injunction was overturned a week later based on a little known legal technicality called the "balance of convenience". In essence, it was determined that the needs of millions of Quebecois must come before the concerns of a few thousand Crees.
Nevertheless, the Governments of Quebec and Canada finally had to sit down and negotiate intensively with the James Bay Cree and a year later, this led to the signing of the historic James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975.

One of the provisions of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was the desire and formal acceptance of the people of Nemaska to return to their traditional hunting territory, but with a condition not to return to the site of the Old Nemaska Post, as this area was still planned for eventual development within the proposed Nottaway/Broadback/Rupert Complex.

The Old Post is to be flooded.

Eventually, a site location was chosen by the village Elders within the vicinity of the Champion Lake region. Our new community was born during the year of 1977, and has since continually developed to the present, with our 25th year anniversary in September 2002.

The New Community on Champion Lake

The Nemaska First Nation is a semi-isolated Cree community located on a triangular peninsular on the northwestern shore of Champion Lake. The ground vegetation within the community site consists of regenerating young trees (grey pines and spruces) underlain by lichen. There is evidence of an old burn many years before, stretching out into the seemingly endless boreal forest of Northern Quebec.

The village has kept its existing tree stands as much as possible, apart from the usual practice of clear cutting everything during construction, a rarity in community development. The houses, composed of approximately 150 residential units are situated within a series of clusters through a loop road system or 'cul de sacs'. The various communal buildings and services sectors are grouped in the centre of the community so as to minimize walking distances from each house.

Nemaska is now a modern village with a range of services and infrastructure which includes, a new Arena, a large primary and secondary school complex, the local Clinic and Social Services office, the Band Administration office, the municipal Garage and Warehousing, a community Day Care, Wellness offices including community activity center, a small youth 'drop-in' center with an adjoining restaurant, the community Church, a community Radio Station, Post Office, General Store, Gas Station, and Police and Fire Stations. It is home to the head office of the Grand Council of the Crees (of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee)/Cree Regional Authority whose building also houses the local motel and restaurant. Due to its centralized location, the community has the added distinction of being looked upon as the capital of the Cree Nation, because of the presence of the Cree Regional Government organization.

Apart from the normal administrative and community services (including private enterprises), much of the local economy is derived from the traditional livelihood of the Cree population through hunting, fishing and trapping under the guaranteed Income Security Program. To complement this livelihood, many of the local people are artisans, involved in the production of traditional handicrafts. There is also increased employment with the neighbouring Hydro-Quebec installations relating to maintenance work.

Nemaska is linked by gravel road to both Chibougamau via the Route du Nord and Matagami, via the James Bay highway.

Hydro-Quebec and Neighbouring Installations

The site of our new community was in some ways influenced and determined by the location and construction of a new gravel road into the region during 1977 to service the Hydro-Quebec installations arising from the James Bay Project.

Notably, all the Hydro-Quebec transmission lines from the La Grande Complex converge in the Nemaska area through two (2) substations, namely the Nemiscau and the Albanel Substations, both approximately thirty (30) kilometres apart on the Route du Nord, a gravel road leading to the town of Chibougamau, over three hundred (300) kilometres away. The substations are large subsidiary stations in which electric current is transformed on its way further south. There is a permanent Hydro-Quebec residence near the Nemiscau substation, which is capable of housing ninety (90) maintenance personnel. In addition there is an existing trailer work camp which can accommodate up to five hundred (500) workers, although it is not presently operating to full capacity, but is on the verge of being opened up for the upcoming EM 1 project. The Hydro-Quebec personnel are usually flown in from the south on a rotating system of seven (7) days in and seven (7) days out (7/7), mostly all non-native. Hydro-Quebec also have their own private airport to service their existing installations and we have been fortunate to use these services at their discretion. The airport itself is located eleven (11) kilometres northeast of our community and Air Creebec (a Cree Airline) provides an air service five (5) days a week to points north and south.

*****
The Forest Fire

On the day after Canada Day, it was rumoured by people who were continuously arriving to the Old Post that a forest fire had started near the community at Champion Lake. We had also experienced a severe thunderstorm at about the same time. Like all rumours, it is a good idea to check them out and I immediately contacted the Director of Operations, Matthew Wapachee, who was still at the community, about the matter.
A forest fire caused by lightning had indeed started approximately ten (10) kilometres northeast of the community, but was slowly moving in an easterly direction parallel to the Hydro-Quebec residence and trailer work camp eighteen (18) kilometres away. The Director of Operations assured me that he would be monitoring the situation and would remain in contact for any new developments through the satellite phone or the trapper's bush radio. It seems that it was not a threat to the community, for now.

I have the utmost confidence in this man. His early training in matters of an emergency nature have proven to be invaluable to the community on several occasions, including his leadership in the Emergency Operations during the forest fire and subsequent community evacuation of May 2001, just the year before.

The call came on the 4th of July. The fire had greatly escalated towards the Hydro-Quebec residence and trailer work camp, forcing Hydro-Quebec into a State of Emergency through the immediate evacuation of all their personnel (non-natives) by air through the use of a Dash 8 aircraft, which is capable of transporting forty-eight (48) passengers.

Emergency Operations Team (EOT)

The Director of Operations informed me that in his capacity as the main Coordinator of the Emergency Preparedness Program for the community, he had convened an initial meeting with the members of the local Emergency Operations Team to deal with the possible threat. The local Emergency Operations Team is comprised of all the first responders of the main service sectors within the community and depending on the particular situation these could include, the Chief and Council, the Coordinator (in the capacity of Director of Operations), the Police Services, the Fire Department, the Public Safety Department, Health and Social Services and others as required under the Band operations in conjunction with the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) and Surété du Québec (SQ).

The Director of Operations had also been acting as the main liaison with the Hydro-Quebec people on the other side who had set up their own Emergency Operations Centre so we could coordinate any assistance they may require from the community. We were also able to acquire up to date information from SOPFEU as to the movement of the forest fire with their aerial monitoring services, including forecasted wind directions. SOPFEU is the forest fire protection/prevention agency for the Province of Quebec who have certain access to the required services in the performance of their mandate (ie: helicopters).

I was informed that the local nurse had decided to apply certain precautionary measures at the community level, in collaboration with the Emergency Operations Team. Firstly, a preliminary list of all the high risk cases needed to be developed. All those with asthma/respiratory problems, the elderly, the young and newborn children were to be ready to be evacuated should the time come. Secondly, the immediate priority would be to make sure that everybody was gathered together in a common place; meaning the annual gathering at the Old Nemaska Post had to be terminated and everybody brought back to the community as soon as possible. The reasoning being a matter of logistics; it may get pretty complicated to attempt to evacuate people from two (2) places. It is always better from one starting point. Later on, it became apparent that this was one of the best decisions made considering the ensuing circumstances.

*****

Therefore, on Thursday, July 4, 2002 at 2:00 P.M, the following PUBLIC NOTICE was delivered by the local Public Safety Department of the Nemaska First Nation:

At this time there is NO IMMEDIATE THREAT from the fire that is burning N-NE of the community.

The forecast is for the wind to change a little, which will bring more smoke our way.
The SQ have informed us that the road will be closed at the Hydro camp at 2 P.M today. People are therefore discouraged from heading to Mountain Lake & Chibougamau. There is heavy smoke between the Hydro Camp and Post Albanel. There is also a chance that the fire will hop to the other side of the road.

The Hydro Camp has declared a State of Emergency and they are in the process of evacuating their employees. We are not in the same situation as the camp at this time.
Currently, we are getting everyone together in one place for safety and logistical reasons.
At this time, we are bringing back only, those who do not have their own means of transportation from Old Nemaska.

All persons at the Old Site are encouraged to return to Nemaska.
Nemaska is NOT in a State of Emergency -
We are in regular contact with the Emergency Operations Centre at the Hydro Camp and with SOPFEU (the forest fire agency).
Further updates will follow.
If you or someone in your family has respiratory problems/asthma etc...stay inside, keep the windows closed & keep the humidity high by boiling water or running a hot shower.

*****

However, it was not an easy matter to convince the people who had just arrived at the Old Post that they all had to go back. There were those who voiced their objection by wanting to find out why we were going towards where the fire and smoke was. Weren't we much safer where we were?
Then suddenly, I was informed that another fire had just jumped the road at Buddy's camp, located halfway between the Landing and the community on Champion Lake and we would be traveling right into it. I was not prepared to send people into a danger zone and I contacted the local Emergency Operations Centre to verify if there was a fire there or not, since it was certainly news to me.
Luckily, there was no fire there and I suspect this got confused with another of Buddy's camps located north of the community where the fire was actually situated, and this gave an indication of how rampant the stories could get in a tense situation.

We managed to get organized towards the late afternoon. Close to over a hundred (100) people were continuously being ferried back to the Landing in three (3) large freighter canoes and an assortment of private boats. There was already a fleet of private vehicles waiting at the Landing area for the remainder of the return by the gravel road. This was organized by Councillor Josie Jimiken, an able individual who was in charge of all transportation under the Emergency Operations Team. There were some who made several return trips during the course of the evening.

My family and I were one of the last to leave as some of the people made the point that "I am not leaving until the Chief leaves".

*****
Day 1 (Friday, July 5, 2002)

I woke up early the following morning after a few hours sleep and noticed there was quite a bit a smoke in the community at ground level. I figured if I could see my next door neighbour's house ten (10) metres away, then it may not be too bad. In fact, I was able to see the other houses within my cluster.

There was a meeting of the Emergency Operations Team scheduled at 10:00 A.M. at the Fire Hall to bring everybody up to speed on the situation and it was confirmed that the Bus from Eastmain had arrived and all the high risk cases would be evacuated immediately.

During the meeting, we were informed by SOPFEU that the Forest Fire was moving with increased speed, coupled with shifting winds and would shortly reach the Hydro-Quebec residence and the adjoining trailer work camps. The initial Emergency Operations Centre or the Command Post had been set up at the local Fire Hall. However considering the constant flow of traffic, the Director of Operations/Coordinator recommended that the Command Post be relocated to the Conference Room within the Band Administration Office and this was done.

*****

The following PUBLIC NOTICE was issued by the local Public Safety Department of the Nemaska First Nation on Friday, July 5, 2002 at 12:00 (noontime):

At this time, there is NO IMMEDIATE THREAT from the fire that is burning N-NE of the community.
The closest point of the fire to the community is 10 km.
The Hydro Camp is still in a State of Emergency. Their employees have all been evacuated and the fire is very close to the sub station. All access to the camp has been closed.
The Route du Nord is closed from the Mistissini end.
All travel is strongly discouraged, and will be stopped beyond the camp. The road is unsafe at this time. The fire has reached the Albanel substation and is expected to reach the road this afternoon. Please do not attempt to travel on the road.
Our situation is not nearly as bad as the camp.
We expect increased smoke this afternoon. For this reason all of the people who have breathing problems or very young babies have left the community. They have either left by their own vehicle or on buses. If they left by bus, they are on the road to Eastmain right now. They have beds and homes waiting for them in Eastmain. Approximately 65 people have gone to Eastmain.
Almost everyone is back home from Old Nemaska. There are about 20 people left who should be returning today. Those at Old Nemaska are strongly encouraged to return to Nemaska today.
Buses are on standby or on their way from other communities to evacuate those of you who do not have your own transportation. WHEN and IF the need arises.
If you want to leave the community please feel free to do so. We are hoping the smoke will clear and that it will be business as usual on Monday morning.
If you do decide to leave for the weekend, please register at the roadblock on the access road.
Nemaska is NOT in a State of Emergency -
We are in regular contact with the Emergency Operations Centre at the Hydro Camp and with SOPFEU (the forest fire agency).
Further updates will follow on the radio at supper time.

*****

Little did we know that, within a matter of hours, "things would start to get a bit hairy".
The Director of Operations had earlier relinquished his liaison/commuting status with the Hydro-Quebec's Emergency Operations Centre on the other side and had the local Public Safety Officer/Acting Fire Chief, George Swallow Sr. take over the responsibilities, in order for him to assume his coordination duties within the community. We were informed that the fire had now reached the Hydro-Quebec residence, including the trailer work camp installations and our local Fire Brigade, along with the Fire Truck had been asked to provide assistance in protecting some of their facilities. We were informed by SOPFEU that the fire was moving five (5) times its forecasted speed and heading towards our only access road and the community of Nemaska. We were aware that the winds were increasing and it appeared that we were now dealing with a 'crown' fire which unfortunately moves from 'treetop to treetop' and at a much faster speed in densely wooded areas.

For a while, we were faced with a certain bewilderment of how the fire had moved so fast upon us, but we knew we had to respond accordingly.

The Director of Operations/Coordinator, Matthew Wapachee immediately requested a brief meeting with the Chief and Council at 2:00 P.M and to formally enact the following;

Re: STATE OF EMERGENCY

WHEREAS during the afternoon of July 2nd, a lightning fire started in the area northeast of the Community of Nemaska, approximately 11 kilometres from the community.

WHEREAS said fire burned in a direction towards the Hydro-Quebec residence and installations during the period of July 3, 4, 5, 2002.

WHEREAS on July 4, 2002 on or around 11:00 A.M, the Hydro-Quebec personnel were immediately evacuated.

WHEREAS on July 5, 2002 at 11:30 A.M, the high risk cases or community residents with respiratory problems, elderly and newborn within the Community of Nemaska were evacuated by road to the community of Eastmain.

WHEREAS a change in wind direction has caused heavy smoke to blow in the direction of the Community of Nemaska, thereby causing serious problems to the remaining residents within the community.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED:

THAT in light of the preceding, the Council of the Nemaska First Nation does hereby declare the Forest Fire as an Emergency Situation in the Community of Nemaska.

THAT as a result of said circumstances, the Council of the Nemaska First Nation does hereby declare the Community of Nemaska to be in a State of Emergency.

THAT as a result thereto, the Council of the Nemaska First Nation do hereby request the Coordinator of the Emergency Preparedness Division of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to provide all necessary assistance to ensure the Health and Well Being of the members of the Nemaska First Nation.

THAT the said request also includes any and all measures required to ensure the overall safety and protection of the members of the Nemaska First Nation and the Community of Nemaska.

THAT said declared State of Emergency is invoked immediately in the best general interest and for the protection of the residents and the Community of Nemaska.

THAT the Chief Emergency Preparedness Measures Coordinator is hereby requested to provide all Technical and Financial Resources to support the Nemaska First Nation in this time of crisis.
THAT the Corporate Secretary, the Director of Operations and/or the Public Safety Officer be and they are hereby mandated to transmit this resolution forthwith to the proper concerned authorities and to do all things necessary to give effect to the foregoing.

*****

Immediately following the enactment of the State of Emergency the necessary contacts were made with Mr. Yvon Gros Louis, the Chief Regional Coordinator of the Emergency Preparedness Program of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Quebec City about our situation and his required assistance pursuant to our duly adopted resolution. He assured us that he will remain in contact with SOPFEU to provide us additional equipment for our local fire fighting crew, and whatever was needed for the fire fighting measures. There were further contacts made with Grand Chief Ted Moses of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou/Eenou Istchee) and the Executive Director Bill Namagoose, about our emergency situation with a request for further political assistance in inquiring into the use of Water Bombers. I understood from previous experience that there is a certain procedure involved within the Provincial Government, until the formal authorization can be implemented for their use.
There were updates provided to the Grand Chief on a regular basis with respect to our situation throughout the course of the next few days.

*****

Therefore, on Friday 5, 2002 just after 2:00 P.M. the following PUBLIC NOTICE was issued by the local PUBLIC SAFETY DEPARTMENT of the NEMASKA CREE NATION:

NEMASKA IS NOW IN A STATE OF EMERGENCY.

*****

Suddenly, towards the late afternoon, an eerie darkness fell on the community as it was completely shrouded in thick black smoke. Even the local street lights came on. I believe this was the scariest moment of all. We could actually see the fire and the rushing wall of smoke behind the community as it gave off a strange hissing sound. Most of the people started to mill around the Band Office. We were fortunate that the heavy smoke was high and not at ground level. If you were to look closely all around you at the ground, you could see small specks of charred spruce and pine needles that had floated downward. This gave you an indication of how susceptible the whole area was to flying sparks or blowing embers and that a fire could start anywhere. To make matters worse, our communications were abruptly cut off with the other side (Hydro camp) where our Public Safety Officer/Acting Fire Chief and most of our Fire Brigade members were, including SOPFEU and the SQ. We were informed later that the fire at the Hydro-Quebec residence and the adjoining trailer work camps had intensified to the effect that the telephones lines have been burnt to the ground. The fire then moved towards our only means of access on the ten (10) kilometre gravel road and headed towards the community from both the north, northeast and easterly directions. There was a period when we learnt that the roads were completely closed because of the intense smoke and we had nowhere to go. We were trapped in our own community with still ninety (90) percent of our people waiting to be evacuated. Councillor Josie Jimiken who was in charge of all transportation arrangements under the Emergency Operations Team, did make the call to the other Cree communities to send in their buses and we had no way of knowing whether they could make it through the gravel road or not. Much credit should go to the people during this intense time. They were very calm and serene. There seemed to be no panic at all. There was one incident that was brought to our attention when a young lady, traveling in a mini-van, along with her children had bolted through the road block and was last seen disappearing into the heavy smoke. We learnt later that she had safely arrived in Matagami, four hundred (400) kilometres away. In one instance, we attempted to get some helicopters from Hydro-Quebec to airlift people as our only means of escape was now by water across the lake. But most of our boats/canoes were at the Landing en route to the Old Post. In any case, there was no way helicopters could make it in through zero (0) visibility ..... too much smoke.

Somehow, the SQ and SOPFEU, including our Public Safety Officer/Acting Fire Chief and Fire Brigade members managed to make it through the smoke on our access road, and there was some relief felt by everyone when they were seen within the community. We were informed that the fire at the Hydro-Quebec residence and trailer work camp had passed and moved on, (hopefully, with the heavy smoke along with it) as we knew the area was densely forested. We decided to transport people to this staging area as we knew we would be experiencing a lot of smoke within the community very shortly.

*****

The following PUBLIC NOTICE was issued on Friday, July 5, 2002 at 6:00 P.M. by the local PUBLIC SAFETY DEPARTMENT of the NEMASKA CREE NATION:

NEMASKA IS STILL IN A STATE OF EMERGENCY

Matthew Wapachee will be updating everyone on the state of the fire at 6 P.M.

Social Services is wrapping up a list of who needs a ride out and who can travel by their own vehicles.

Evacuation Plan

 

! Evacuate by road when the weather and fire conditions allow.
! We will be going to the Hydro residence for the night where we will be safe.
! Buses will arrive to transport those who do not have their own transportation.
! Those without a ride should pack personal items and come to the recreation hall.
! All people will be received and registered at the Hydro camp.

What to do.

 

! Pack now
! Have a meal
! Bring a wet facecloth or towel to cover your mouth during the trip
! Move to the Rec hall if you need a ride
! Close all your windows and doors
! Remove all combustible materials from around your house.

A few selected security and fire personnel will be staying in the community, in the event that, personal belongings are in danger.

*****

There was a lot of smoke with fires burning all along both sides of the gravel road. We started to move people by the local school bus and private vehicles to the planned staging area at the Hydro-Quebec trailer work camp, which we received permission to use (not the residence as requested).

We had to go through a maze of thick smoke along the gravel road, but only on brief intervals as smoke does not tend to stay too long in one place, and we were also quite knowledgeable of where the heavy timber stands were. It was the plan that as soon as the buses arrived, the people would be boarded and they would leave from there. However when we arrived at the trailer work camp, we found out that there was more smoke there than in the community. Luckily by this time, the buses made it through and there was an immediate change in plan. Everyone was brought back again into the community where the buses had already gone. The buses were parked by the Band Office. However, the people seemed to be in no hurry to get on board. Anyone living in the community for the first time would probably look at this situation as being pretty 'bizarre'. I mean, here we were, the fire was just behind the community, the rescue vehicles were finally here and ready to go, but there appeared to be some uncertainty and hesitancy amongst the people whether they should leave or not? Some would get on the bus, then come out again. Others would be waiting for someone or "I am not getting on board if I cannot take my dog with me". It is important to understand that Crees take things in stride, no matter how scary the situation. So we let matters flow naturally. Instinctively, we knew there was no need to create panic where there was no panic. Finally, even though not fully boarded, the Coordinator had the buses slowly move to the Gas Station, one step away from the community... a silent and subtle approach to "hey, let's go". It worked and we managed to get everybody on board towards the latter part of the evening. Two (2) buses were destined for Waskaganish. One (1) bus left for Wemindji and a fleet of private vehicles left for Km. 257, a trailer camp along the Matagami/LG2 highway. Some others followed the buses. There were other private vehicles with relatives in other Cree communities and they made their own arrangements on where to evacuate. The SQ and with the assistance of our local Police Services provided an escort service to ensure the evacuees were safely on their way.

When the last bus disappeared into the smoke, I can honestly say there was a sigh of relief from those who stayed behind, as we knew our families, friends and relatives were on their way to safety.

*****

It is common practice that one of the basic techniques to fight a forest fire is to set up a fire line or fire wall by clearing an area of any fuel that would allow the approaching fire to spread. Our local Maintenance Department, with the assistance of Nemaska Eenou Companee (a joint venture Company with Cree Construction and Development Company), together with heavy bull dozing equipment immediately began clearing the area behind the community by scraping off all the topsoil (and trees) and pushing it to one side. The fire fighters also cleared swaths of trees at various locations behind the community in areas where the heavy machinery could not reach because of the muskeg.

It should be noted that when our village Elders decided on the location of our community, they took into consideration the fact that the area is prone to forest fires. The community is located on a 'jutting' peninsula, naturally protected by a meandering creek in the back with muskeg, followed by sparse and low lying trees on both sides. Therefore, when there is a forest fire (so far, three (3) in the past nineteen (19) years), this natural 'fire break' behind the community slows it down quite considerably, since it does not have large stands of fuel in its path. Thus, we are able to fight it as it slowly moves on the ground. However we still have to keep on guard for blowing or flying embers at all times, which could fall onto our community. Thus, the need for constant patrols by the fire crew.

Later that evening around 11:00 P.M. a meeting was called by the Coordinator of the Emergency Operations Team, Matthew Wapachee, along with the assistance of the Chief and Council.
The meeting would involve an overall assessment of the present situation; of who still remained within the community following the initial evacuation and what now needs to happen.
We informed all the people who stayed behind, that each person has to have a responsibility in protecting community property, and the last call was made to anyone who wanted to leave... should leave early in the morning. It was not our intention to provide support services to anyone who would be just 'hanging around' and this was made perfectly clear to everyone. Each person had to answer to somebody and be willing to be a part of the team under the overall coordination of the Emergency Operations Centre. It was now time to fully organize ourselves to defend the community against the approaching forest fire in all ways possible. There was a confirmed list of over eighty (80) people who decided to remain behind and the directive was made to each community service sector to organize themselves accordingly by providing basic support to the Emergency Operations Team and the Fire Fighting crew.

The Emergency Operations Centre located at the Band Administration Office would be manned on a twenty-four (24) basis. All calls would be logged accordingly and each member of the Emergency Operations Team would be assigned certain duties in response to whatever the situation. There were forty-seven (47) Fire Fighters registered, largely composed of young people within the community under the direction of the Public Safety Officer/Acting Fire Chief, George Swallow Sr. They would need to formally organize themselves through a rotating shift system on a twenty-four (24) hour basis. The Police Services personnel would also need to do the same, for control of public access and security. The Motel/Restaurant services would need to provide the catering services to ensure that those left to protect the community would be fed through a workable schedule. Volunteers would be required on every phase of the operations in a supportive capacity. The clinic staff needed to be on call constantly. The local Gas Station needed to provide the necessary service and all private vehicles need to be filled with gas and be ready for eventual evacuation, if the time came. The Band Maintenance Department would be available to give support to the fire fighting measures as required. The Coordinator informed everyone that one of the buses from Waskaganish would be detained and parked by the Fire Hall at all times. This would be done just in case we felt that we were in danger. We had to be prepared to leave at a moments' notice through a constant warning signal of the Police siren. Everyone was to immediately respond by gathering at the Fire Hall, including all private vehicles. We had been fortunate so far that our communications system had remained intact, including our power line.

The following resource people made themselves available for the necessary emergency operations:

 

#'s NAME, Title of Team Work

1 Beauregard, Bernard Cook
2 Beauregard, Vincent Cook
3 Blackned, Bill Fire Fighter
4 Blackned, Kirby Fire Fighter
5 Brien, Andrew Fire Fighter
6 Capassisit, Robert Fire Fighter/ Brigade
7 Cheezo, John Paul Fire Fighter/ Brigade
8 Cheezo, Redfern Fire Fighter
9 Cheezo, Sam Supervisor for Band Maintenance
10 Coonishish, Andrew Standby Operator, Runner (volunteer)
11 Coonishish, Claude Fire Fighter
12 Coonishish, Nellie Refreshments, Restaurant (volunteer)
13 Coonishish, Shawn Police
14 Diamond, Clarence Fire Fighter/Brigade
15 Diamond, Eddie Cree Regional Authority
16 Diamond, James Communications Technician
17 Diamond, Jeremy Fire Fighter
18 Dick, Robbie Operator (volunteer)
19 Dube, Jean Claude Store Manager
20 Jimiken, Josie Councillor Emergency Operations Team - Transportation
21 Jolly, Albert Fire Fighter
22 Jolly, Dennis Jr. Fire Fighter/Brigade
23 Jolly, Freddie General Help (volunteer)
24 Jolly, Greg Jr. Fire Fighter/Brigade
25 Jolly, Harry Patrolling
26 Jolly, Joseph Sr. Fire Fighter
27 Jolly, Lawrence Fire Fighter/Brigade
28 Jolly, Oliver Fire Fighter
29 Jolly, Thomas Emergency Operations Team - Communications
30 Jolly, Wayne Sr. Fire Fighter/ Brigade
31 Longchap, Matthew Fire Fighter
32 Louttit, Dale Fire Fighter
33 Matoush, Howard Fire Fighter
34 Matoush, Robert General Help (volunteer)
35 Meskino, Isaac Supervisor - Nemaska Eenou Companee
36 Meterick, Andrew Operator (volunteer)
37 Mettaweskum, Billy Operator (volunteer)
38 Mettaweskum, Gerald Fire Fighter
39 Minister, Johnny Fire Fighter
40 Moar, Noreen Support Staff - Emergency Operations Team
41 Neeposh, Ronnie Fire Fighter
42 Neeposh, Tommy Fire Fighter/Brigade
43 Orr, Roger Mechanic, Refreshments (volunteer)
44 Pash, Jamie Fire Fighter
45 Rabbitskin, Danny Operator (volunteer)
46 Rabbitskin, Jeremy Waiter, Patrolling (volunteer)
47 Rabbitskin, Rose Lynn Support Staff - Emergency Operations Team
48 Rabbitskin, Samuel Fire Fighter
49 Semple, Shane Police
50 Swallow, Billy Fire Fighter
51 Swallow, George Sr. Public Safety Officer/Acting Fire Chief - Emergency Operations Team
52 Swallow, Matthew Deputy Chief, Emergency Operations Team
53 Swallow, Michael Fire Fighter
54 Swallow, Paul Fire Fighter
55 Swallow, Philip Mechanic, standby Operator
56 Tanoush, David Road Runner
57 Tanoush, Jeremiah Fire Fighter
58 Tent, Luke Fire Fighter
59 Trapper, Johnny Fire Fighter
60 Wabanonik, Diane Refreshments, Restaurant (volunteer)
61 Wapachee, Adrian Fire Fighter
62 Wapachee, Freddie Police
63 Wapachee, George Chief, Emergency Operations Team - Media Relations
64 Wapachee, Henry General Help (volunteer)
65 Wapachee, Jerry Fire Fighter/Brigade
66 Wapachee, Jimmy Fire Fighter
67 Wapachee, John Fire Fighter
68 Wapachee, John Paul Fire Fighter/ Brigade
69 Wapachee, Jonathan Fire Fighter
70 Wapachee, Marcel Fire Brigade (Administration)
71 Wapachee, Matthew Director of Operations/Coordinator - Emergency Operations Team
72 Wapachee, Neil Fire Fighter
73 Wapachee, Noah Gas Station
74 Wapachee, Norman Fire Fighter
75 Wapachee, Rene G. Fire Fighter
76 Wapachee, Reuben Fire Fighter
77 Wapachee, Rose Corporate Secretary, Emergency Operations Centre
78 Wapachee, Soloman Fire Fighter
79 Wapachee, Suzie General Help (volunteer)
80 Wapachee, Thomas Fire Fighter
81 Weistche, Jacob Fire Brigade/Dispatcher

*****

Day 2 (Saturday, July 6, 2002)

The morning was pretty quiet and as could be expected, there was a lot of smoke within the community at ground level. This became quite common for the next few days and it gradually tended to disperse as the wind picked up. Everyone who remained behind was now accustomed to donning disposable surgical masks to cover the nose and mouth to protect them from breathing too much smoke while venturing outside. It was interesting to check into the Emergency Operations Centre and to be well informed of what had been happening during the preceding night. All calls coming in were logged onto large size flip chart paper placed along the walls. In the end, there were over 60 pages placed all over and even then not everything was recorded. It was good to see that everybody that was evacuated had reached their destinations safely and were well cared for, and if there are any problems from where they are, there was a contact person designated at each location by someone from the community. The list on the whereabouts of everyone had been posted up and this was updated constantly for those that stayed behind to keep track of their families, relatives and friends. We had been fortunate to some extent that not all of the people/residents were in the community during the evacuation phase as many of them were elsewhere. The few people that had remained at the Old Poste were finally coming out and they were requested not to return to the community, but to continue on to any of the evacuation points.

During the day, there was concern from the people that had been evacuated by private vehicles to Km. 257 situated between the Matagami/LG2 highway. There was fire nearby and they were starting to experience some smoke. Therefore, after waiting for clearance from the SQ on the road conditions, as the main highway had been closed to the general public from the Matagami end, we finally managed to have them continue on to Matagami where living arrangements were made for them in a local motel/hotel. The following gives you an indication of where the evacuees ended up;

Community/Town # of people
Wemindji 13
Waskaganish 190
Eastmain 106
Matagami 58
Chisasibi 9
LaSarre 3
Mistissini 34
Val d'Or 10
North Bay 4
Amos 4
Oujé Bougoumou 2
Rouyn 1
Waswanipi 19
Other 9
Total 462

*****

Up to this time, the fire had been making its way towards the community from the north, northeast and east side. The local fire fighters were continually monitoring its approach by constantly patrolling the areas behind the community for blowing embers. The critical areas of their patrol movements would often change depending on the wind shift and direction. Most of them were on foot, and each was equipped with portable water pumps strapped to their backs.
These are plastic five (5) gallon water containers that have a short built in hose and nozzle/pump attachments that are pumped manually with jet spray results. The SOPFEU vehicle had arrived in the village bringing with them additional fire suppressant material in the form of extended hoses, water pumps and the ground sprinkler system. I remember Mr. Gros Louis mentioning this to me over the phone. The ground sprinkler system would be laid out throughout the various sectors of the community regarded as 'danger zones' for that day, depending on the location of the approaching fire and wind direction. We were fortunate that a couple of years ago we had managed to add a second reservoir to our water system for fire fighting capacity through funding from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. This now became a necessity. The fire fighters had organized themselves into four (4) groups of approximately ten (10) people each headed by a group leader under the overall direction of the Acting Fire Chief and his assistant. They proceeded on a double group shift of anywhere between six (6) to ten (10) hours for the next few days, mostly in the areas behind the community beyond the fire line. On at least four (4) occasions the fire had tried to move into the community and each time the fire fighters were able to suppress it. Sometimes, they got pretty excited and I suspect this has to do with the flow of adrenalin as they can get really 'pumped up'. I recall one afternoon as we were meeting in the Emergency Operations Centre, the door suddenly flew wide open and a young fire fighter came running in, yelling "paper! paper! I need paper! There's a fire coming and I have to make a plan!". And with that, he tore off a couple sheets of flip chart paper standing nearby and off he went. Nobody said a word. We just looked at each other, and continued on with our meeting.

SOPFEU (Norman Lacour and Real Lampron) were a great help to us as they continually provided us with aerial information (helicopter) on the movement of the fire and daily forecasted weather conditions. We were informed by Yvon Gros Louis that as soon as there is a 'hole', SOPFEU would call in the CL 215 Water Bombers. We were told that there were four (4) Water Bombers on standby in Matagami and that they could be here within an hour as soon as the conditions are right. With the amount of smoke and zero (0) visibility within the area, we knew this was not going to be anytime soon. We had another problem. It seemed that the two (2) nurses that were with us as part of the Emergency Operations Team told us they were leaving the community to help out the evacuees (elders) in Eastmain. It appeared they had a private conference call with their supervisor within the Cree Health Board, who authorized them to leave despite the objections of the Coordinator of the Emergency Operations Team. They went anyway and we were left without any clinical staff for the next couple of days, although we were assured that replacement nurses would be provided. This assurance was given through an immediate contact with the Chairman of the Cree Health Board, Bertie Wapachee, who also happened to be the local representative for the community.

Councillor Willie Iserhoff, who had been away to attend a meeting in Waskaganish arrived around midday to provide support to the emergency situation. He often led a prayer to ensure we were not alone. Throughout the day, the evacuees were constantly calling in to the Emergency Operations Centre requesting for updates on the situation and this was provided. Some of the evacuees in Waskaganish in particular, wanted private accommodations. So finally we made arrangements with the local Lodge. In a situation of this nature, we were very much aware of the necessity to ensure everyone is kept as comfortable as possible. On the other hand, we always needed to keep in mind the eventual costs of the operations and in turn to respect certain Government parameters/guidelines. We had to work within the hopes of having all our costs reimbursed by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. In a previous experience, the Department would only allow $40 per day per person for meals (southern rates), while in the North, you can expect to be charged $75 per day, with similar rates for children. Therefore, I was mandated by the Emergency Operations Team to negotiate a more agreeable rate with my counterpart, the Chief of Waskaganish. I called him immediately and he assured me that he would check with his finance people and get back to me.

All during this time, the media down South had heard of our predicament respecting the forest fires up North because the smoke had reached all the way down to the States. I was in charge of the media relations under the Emergency Operations Team and I provided updates to the morning radio programs and news media that called in during the next few days. It was going very well, until I saw a morning headline (faxed in) from a well known newspaper "It's the end of the world - Cree Chief". It turned out that a reporter had managed to obtain a telephone number to the local Fire Hall and an over-exuberant individual had blurted out that response after picking up the telephone. From then on, everybody at the Fire Hall was told to relay all calls coming in from the media to the Emergency Operations Centre.

*****
Day 3 (Sunday, July 7, 2002)

We started to receive calls from the other Cree communities with volunteers on standby ready to give assistance to our situation. Although we were grateful for the kind gesture, we were not prepared to bring in more people as our supportive capabilities were pretty well 'maxed out' and there were times we needed to make emergency food runs to Waskaganish. We were also informed by some of the evacuees calling in that they were hearing all kinds of rumours floating around that some of the houses had already burnt down. We suspect that this may have been confused with the fact that some of the trapper's cabins and spring camps did burn down, but these were situated outside of the community where the fires were burning. We tried to keep this information 'under wraps' for the time being and as usual, in a small community, the rumour mill knows no bounds.

*****

Therefore, at 10:00 A.M. on July 7th, 2002, and on the recommendation of the Coordinator, Matthew Wapachee, Chief George Wapachee on behalf of the Emergency Operations Team provided the following latest update from the Emergency Operations Centre.

Re: State of Emergency within the Community of Nemaska

The following message of reassurance is released on behalf of the Chief and Council, the Emergency Operations Team, the local Fire Fighters and community volunteers to the Band Members of Nemaska who were safely evacuated to the other Cree communities and to nearby towns:

Right now, at this moment, all is quiet within the community of Nemaska. The community is still standing. No houses have burnt and the fire has not reached the village as firewalls have been constructed all around for added protection. There is smoke all over the area, but we are coping.

Over eighty (80) community members stayed behind to protect our community and over eighty (80) community members are still here to do just that, but in the event we feel that we are in danger, we are organized to leave at a moments' notice, if such were to be the case.

Right now, we are still in the state of emergency, as declared by the Chief and Council and the fire has settled down to some extent behind the community, but because of the continued hot weather forecast and the likely event that the fire will flare up again, we will continue to be in State of Emergency and apply all required measures to protect our community.

We have been told, that there are 4 CL-215 Water Bombers on standby in Matagami that can be here within the hour, should we need them, and SOPFEU will inform us accordingly when that will be feasible to do so. Clear visibility is an important factor with this type of operation

SOPFEU and the SQ have provided us with much needed assistance in the area of their respective responsibilities of monitoring the fire activities by air, assistance via ground activities, safe road accessibility and more importantly, their presence to stabilize a very tense situation. This is very much appreciated.

When we feel that the area is safe for you to return to your homes, the Council will lift the State of Emergency, and you will be informed accordingly.

However, before that can be done, we will have to assess all the existing community services and be confident that it is ready for full scale operations and capacity to meet the needs of the returning residents to the community.

At this point, we feel it is better and safer for you to stay where you are right now. We are hopeful that the fire is no longer a threat to the community or its remaining residents, but the ensuing smoke is just as dangerous.

Therefore, we will need your continued patience and cooperation not to return to the community just now, as we are not in a stage where this is acceptable because of the enactment of the State of Emergency. Control of the situation is very important at this point and we cannot have other people coming in. Each of the community residents that are here now have a certain area of responsibility in order to maintain the present situation.

Our local Emergency Operations Team under the coordination of our Director of Operations, Matthew Wapachee are doing a remarkable job and we highly commend our local firefighters, composed mostly of our young people for their tenacity and their dedication to the task at hand. The various support services provided within the community, like the Band Administration Office, the local Police Services, the Public Safety Department, the Fire Brigade, the Maintenance Department, the Nemaska Eenou Companee, the local Gas Station, the Motel & Restaurant services, the Nemaska General Store and especially the volunteers are doing an exceptional job in this time of crisis.

But, we are not "out of the woods" yet.

Therefore, just to reassure everybody, we are safe and your community is safe, but be prepared that upon your return, the landscape en route will have changed quite considerably....but as nature calls, that will return once again.

I can assure you that, it will snow again in December.

*****

Monitoring Morale of the Emergency Operations

During a meeting of the Emergency Operations Team, it was important to keep tabs on the overall morale of the various operations and this was noted to be quite high. This needs to be maintained and continued expressions of encouragement will be done by the Chief and Council to all service sectors within their areas of responsibilities on an ongoing basis.

There were times when we had to keep certain individuals in line when they happened to get a little too excited. This transcended into the mobile radio transmitters that each of the front line workers were equipped with, by the tone of their words and voices. We had to keep the operations on a positive perspective. There was no room for negative behaviour as this had a way of affecting morale. There were times we had to isolate a situation and send the individual on a special 'mission' to get him out of the way for awhile. We did not impose any real restrictions on some of the local people who decided to stay behind, the general assumption being that they wanted to help. It did become apparent during the course of the emergency that we had some people who were strongly independent. We knew who they were, after having to live with them in the community for so long and considering the circumstances, tolerance was usually the best policy. They did not fit well within a teamwork setting, but that's how they were and we let them work on their own. However, a watchful eye was kept on them to see where they were at all times.

We also needed to diffuse some personnel behaviours by individuals who never really understood the operations within a State of Emergency situation. Everything changes in a State of Emergency. The coordination is left to those who are trained in this regard. They are the experts and everyone else plays a supporting role. The Acting Fire Chief plays a significant role through his fire fighters and the Band Maintenance Department is at his disposal in a forest fire situation and not the other way around. Some of our staff had a hard time accepting this and this was corrected.
Within the Emergency Operations Centre, many of us knew we were all in very tense situation and we were quite aware of the heavy responsibility that was bestowed upon us and it was important that we needed some measure of relief through humour to keep our spirits high. I remember Councillor Matthew Swallow putting an apple in the middle of the conference table. Under the apple, a small note was placed. Scribbled on it were the following words "only to be eaten in the event of a full scale evacuation". This was a symbolic gesture of calm resilience. The apple stayed on the table throughout the course of the emergency and it is still a mystery to me what eventually happened to it.

We were informed by the local Youth Protection Worker who had evacuated to Waskaganish that the Director of Youth Protection wanted all youth under the age of majority to be evacuated immediately. There were some under age minors who were in the community with their parents who had volunteered to stay behind and we eventually had to evacuate three (3) young people in response to this request.

The Director of Operations/Coordinator informed the Emergency Operations Team that SOPFEU, along with twenty (20) fire fighters were planning to come to Nemaska to help out. However, the Director of Public Safety/Acting Fire Chief further confirmed that they had been requested to stay put until further notice as the situation seemed to be under control.

*****

Day 4 (Monday, July 8, 2002)

The firefighters continued with their round the clock schedules and there were times when the Fire Hall became a bed-in facility with mattresses on the floor for the fire crews waiting for their shift to begin. During the days, the firefighters followed a rigorous schedule of activities which comprised of an early morning briefing and a plan discussion from 7:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M. They would lay out the hoses and the ground sprinkler system in the areas of the community where blowing embers could be expected depending on the location of the fire flare-up and wind direction from 8:30 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. The night shift and patrol crew would come in from 9:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. and the day would start all over again. During the day, if a fire flared up in a certain area, the firefighters would move to the particular area with long extended hoses connected to a water pump which accessed the creek behind the community. The portable water pumps provided the ideal mobile back-up when there was no time to set up the hosing system. However, they needed to be refilled constantly. The SCBA Tanks (oxygen breathing apparatus) were located at the Fire Hall and the fire crew, following every shift were required to undergo a daily intake of fresh oxygen. Even the members of the Emergency Operations Team were also required to do the same. We were informed by the Cree Health Board that the two (2) replacement nurses were on their way by helicopter and should arrive in the community in the afternoon with additional oxygen tanks.

There was a time when all road access into the area was blocked because of the fire and smoke. The Route du Nord was closed from the Chibougamau end, the Matagami/LG 2 was closed from the Matagami end and our local Police Force had set up their own road blocks at various intersections on the gravel road leading towards Nemaska and the Route du Nord.

The fire tended to follow a certain cycle throughout the day. It started to subside towards the late evening. The flames were not that high during the night as they cooled down to a smouldering
state for a certain period, like a 'dragon' taking a rest. In the early morning towards noon, there was not much activity, although the fire was slowly burning on and under the ground. This was usually accompanied by a lot of low lying smoke which tended to disperse as the winds picked up. Unfortunately, the fire picked up as well. At one time, we were surrounded by fire, so it did not matter which way the wind blew, we still had smoke. The fire would flare up again towards noon and continue throughout the day, until the late evening.

We had our regular meeting of the Emergency Operations Team along with SOPFEU who informed us that the fire activity nearby was quite calm and the local firefighting team was set up to continue to meet any immediate threat. Judging from the report from SOPFEU, it would appear that they no longer felt the fire was threatening the village although it continued to smoulder in a few places with 'spot fires' moving away from the community. He informed us that he may have to go back to Radisson on another fire situation near Chisasibi later on in the evening and consequently our access to the use of the helicopter would cease, as would the aerial monitoring services. On the recommendation of the Emergency Operations Team, I contacted Yvon Gros Louis about our situation since we were not yet comfortable that the threat was gone and we wanted to have access to a helicopter for monitoring purposes for the next few days. We managed to be given an extended use of the helicopter and this became handy during the 'mop up' procedures.

The two (2) replacement nurses from the Cree Health Board finally arrived by helicopter at 6:00 pm that evening.

The Director of Police, Calvin Blacksmith, who was away on his 7/7 schedule returned to the community in the late afternoon to help out on the emergency.

The Director of Operations/Coordinator had made arrangements with a couple of the more traditional cooks within our group to roast approximately fifteen (15) geese over an open fire for this evening's supper. This was a welcome break for the restaurant staff who have been going non-stop for quite awhile.

I had noticed earlier that our traditional cooks were 'hosing down' one of the canvas-covered tipis usually used for this type of cooking in the village, I gathered they were being very 'fire safety' conscious.

*****
Day 5 (Tuesday, July 9, 2002)

Some of the fire fighters were tired and the Emergency Operations Centre made arrangements for replacement firefighters from Waskaganish. There were six (6) firefighters from Nemaska, who requested for relief and arrangements were made for them to rejoin their families who had evacuated to Waskaganish. In return, eight (8) replacement firefighters arrived from Waskaganish around noon. They were the following;

Anderson Jolly
Shawn Hester
Arnold Blueboy
Terry Hester
Don Jonah
Peter John Weistche
James Trapper
Gordon Moar

The local fire fighters were dispersed in various locations behind the village to deal with 'spot fires' and to start the 'mop up' procedures along with the replacements from Waskaganish who were quickly transported by helicopter to these areas. The 'mop up' procedures were a necessity following a forest fire. They consisted of a complete 'soaking' of the burnt areas using extended hoses or portable water tanks. The ground needed to be openly scraped for any underground embers which continue to smolder.
By this time, a reporter and a photographer from the news media had somehow made it through our roadblocks by way of Waskaganish. They provided some well needed articles with regards to our emergency situation, our fire had drawn public attention throughout the country.

During the past few days while the emergency operations were underway, the Emergency Operations Centre was at times inundated with all types of requests from the evacuees and these needed attending to make the best of a trying situation. There were people who did not have any spending money to purchase personal necessities; Similac and pampers for the baby, basic toiletries, etc....Each one of these were attended to accordingly. There were occasions when this became rather difficult when a mercantile establishment would not accept our purchase order (P.O.) system and we had to make alternative arrangements with the local Band Council in such cases. There were some situations communicated to the Emergency Operations Centre which proved too embarrassing to record as an event on the flip chart paper. We had a call from the helicopter company who requested a purchase order from us to pay the incoming invoice relating to the transportation of the two (2) replacement nurses. This was quickly referred to the Cree Health Board. The two (2) replacement nurses, Roger Lachapelle and Veronique Doutreloux were a great help to us as part of the Emergency Operations Team.

We were quite certain the danger had passed and the Emergency Operations Team met for a final update and to assess the situation through a meeting with SOPFEU on the fire situation and the required 'mop up' activities. There was a discussion on the recovery process, an assessment of the essential services and the coordination needed to enable the evacuees to return to the community. We now had to deal with lifting the State of Emergency.

Therefore, on the recommendation of the Emergency Operations Team, the following update was released on behalf of the Chief and Council and the Emergency Operations Team to the Band Members who were safely evacuated to the other Cree communities and to nearby towns:

 

Latest Update 2

RE: State of Emergency within the Community of Nemaska

Your community and your homes are still standing.

The fire that has recently threatened our community has subsided to a large extent. The fire has pretty well burnt all that it can burn and there is not much else to burn. The critical situation has stabilized. It is cloudy at the moment with some wind and there was some rain earlier (hopefully we will get some more). The smoke is minimal right now, but we cannot say that there will not be any. There are other fires still burning elsewhere and it is likely that we will encounter smoke periodically.

Our fire fighters have started their preliminary 'mop up' duties as there are continuous smoldering areas and these will need to be put out, but they should not pose any further danger in coming to life on a large scale.

I am pleased to inform you that we feel that the situation is safe and the Council of the Nemaska First Nation will be lifting the State of Emergency and its ensuing measures early tomorrow morning, July 10, 2002.

I am certain that you all want to come home.

In the meantime, we are in the process of implementing a Recovery Plan to ensure that you will return in comfort and that all essential community services will be operating and restored to full capacity, in a coordinated fashion.

Once the State of Emergency is lifted, you will be notified of the necessary logistics with respect to your transportation back to the community.

I would however caution you to be ready of what you may see en route, but as Crees, adaptation to any form of traumatic experience has become our way of life. This is no different and we will adapt.

Our Creator has a plan for everything that happens in this world and surely, something good will arise from this experience.

We will be planning a Community Meeting as soon as possible and as mentioned before, an experience of this magnitude is traumatic for every segment of our population (both young and old) and we need to discuss it together and openly in a healing manner.

May God bless you all and welcome home.

*****

 

 

Later that afternoon at 5:00 p.m. the Council of the Nemaska First Nation met and formally adopted the following resolution:

RE: LIFTING OF THE STATE OF EMERGENCY

WHEREAS during the afternoon of July 2nd, 2002 a lightning fire started in the area northeast of the Community of Nemaska, approximately 11 kilometres away.

WHEREAS the said fire burned in a direction towards the Hydro-Quebec residence and installations located approximately 16 kilometres east of the Community of Nemaska during the period of July 3, 4, 5, 2002.

WHEREAS on July 4, 2002 on or around 11:00 A.M. the Hydro-Quebec personnel were immediately evacuated.

WHEREAS on July 5, 2002 at 11:30 A.M. the high risk cases or community residents with respiratory problems, elderly and newborn within the Community of Nemaska were evacuated by road to the community of Eastmain.

WHEREAS, suddenly the said fire escalated five (5) times its forecasted speed in a direction towards the Nemaska Access Road and the community itself.

WHEREAS, as a result thereto the Council of the Nemaska First Nation had to declare the Community to be in a State of Emergency and to invoke Emergency Measures; namely the evacuation of Community Members and invoke Fire Fighting Measures to deal with the threat as of 2:00 P.M. on July 5, 2002.

WHEREAS during the evening of July 5, 2002 the remaining community residents were immediately evacuated by road to nearby Cree communities and non-native towns.

WHEREAS a core group of community members/residents comprising of the Chief and Council, the members of the local Emergency Measures Team, the Technical support staff, a contingent of young Firefighters and volunteers remained within the community for defensive purposes.

WHEREAS Fire Fighting Measures have been undertaken during July 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 2002 by the Nemaska First Nation and SOPFEU and efforts to monitor the situation were also undertaken.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED:

THAT based on the latest information from the local Emergency Operations Team of the Nemaska First Nation and SOPFEU to the effect that the fire (including the ensuing smoke) is now under control and poses no further danger to the Community of Nemaska and/or to its Band Members/Residents, the Council of the Nemaska First Nation does hereby declare the State of Emergency lifted as of July 10th, 2002 at 6:00 A.M.

THAT a formal Recovery Plan be undertaken by the local Emergency Operations Team to ensure that all essential services within the Community of Nemaska are in full operating capacity to meet the needs of the returning Band Members/Residents.

THAT the Community of Nemaska is hereby declared safe and the Band Members/Residents be organized to return following the acceptance of said Recovery Plan.

THAT this decision be communicated to the concerned parties involved in the effecting of the State of Emergency.

THAT the Corporate Secretary is hereby directed to do all things useful and necessary to give effect to the foregoing.

*****

The evacuees were to be informed of the lifting of the State of Emergency sometime after 9:00 A.M. the next morning. This would give us ample time to implement certain recovery measures. This included calling all the Band Maintenance staff that had been evacuated to return to the community and check to make sure all community service utilities were operating satisfactorily. The local General Store informed us that KEPA Transport (a Cree owned transport company) would be arriving in the morning with a load of groceries to stock up the store. The clinical staff informed us they were ready to resume full scale operations jointly with the other nurses who would be returning from Eastmain.

The following morning, as part of the ongoing recovery plan, we started to slowly scale back our emergency measures operations down to the main essentials relating to Police Services for security reasons and the local fire fighters. This was understood through the following MEMORANDUM to all Technical Support Staff/Volunteers from the Emergency Operations Team, dated July 10th, 2002 :

Subject: Lifting of State of Emergency

The Council of the Nemaska First Nation has lifted the State of Emergency as of July 10th, 2002 at 6:00 A.M.

Therefore, what this means is that we will slowly start to implement a certain amount of closure to some of the emergency measures that were applied during the period of the State of Emergency.

This is a normal exercise to ensure that, when we request for reimbursement from the Federal Government (Indian Affairs), it is only these costs that will be applicable and acceptable for reimbursement.

Most of us can now eat from our private homes and it would only be the Fire Fighters and the local Police Services, who should be allowed to take their meals at the Motel & Restaurant. This would also include incoming bus drivers and/or confirmed private vehicle drivers transporting our Band members back to the community.

The Motel & Restaurant staff will need to have their rest and dining services will not be offered to the public until further notice, other than the preceding exceptions.

Please do not regard this as an affront to the service you have provided thus far. It is very much appreciated, but this is all part of the recovery process and cutting back on our costs in certain areas, which may not be necessary. It is a gradual exercise of slowly going back to normalcy and to our daily habits.

We look forward to your understanding.

*****

The Regional Coordinator, Mr. Yvon Gros Louis was notified of the lifting of the State of Emergency in the morning prior to the return of the evacuees to the community.

During the early part of the day, the Emergency Operations Team began the logistics of preparing our evacuees to return to the community. The people with private vehicles in Matagami needed to have their vehicles filled up with gas and we made arrangements to issue purchase orders (P.O's) with the Shell gas station. Similar arrangements were made in Waskaganish and Eastmain. There was still some smoke in the area and a decision was made by the Emergency Operations Centre, SOPFEU and the clinic to allow the Eastmain evacuees to return except for the high risk cases and the elderly. We received a call from the Cree Health Board to assure us that all the front line workers would be directed to come into the community to help out with the recovery process.

The evacuees from Matagami, Waskaganish and Wemindji started arriving in the community towards the latter part of the afternoon. The fire fighters had hoped to set up some type of welcoming reception for the evacuees but they ended up being too busy with the continued 'mopping up' activities behind the community. It was just as well, considering the long stretches of 'parched' landscape en route. There was uncertainty if the returning evacuees were in any mood to celebrate.

We also heard that the evacuees from Eastmain had to turn back because of another fire along the way. However, this turned out to be just as well, because the fire that was still burning on the north side of the 'narrows', a culvert causeway four (4) kilometres from our village entrance was now moving towards the community side. We knew that once it reached the lake it would die out. Some of our people started to gather at the 'narrows' for picture taking purposes with the lake, fire and smoke in the background. But once it reached the lake, it started to move towards the village along the lakefront. This was towards the late evening. I recall driving back to the 'narrows' to check out the situation when I saw a team of our young fire fighters getting ready to meet it as they started to wade across the stream with all their equipment. Their last words to me "We're gonna kill it"..... and they did.

*****

On July 11th, 2002 at 2:00 P.M. the Emergency Operations Centre sent out the last and final
update 3:

Re: State of Emergency within the Community of Nemaska

The State of Emergency has been lifted as of 6:00 P.M. July 10th, 2002, following the meeting of the local Emergency Operations Team and SOPFEU and that the situation is deemed to be safe.

We have made a preliminary assessment of the local community support services and it was determined that it was ready to receive its residents once again.

A large majority of the evacuees have returned to the community during the late afternoon of July10, 2002 (408 residents).

Because of the constant smoke (though not very heavy) the high risk residents were held back in Eastmain (54 residents) for the moment and following a meeting of the Emergency Operations Team, half of them will be arriving later today, (they ended up having to turn back) with the remainder returning home sometime tomorrow (everyone came back then).

There are 'pockets' of smoke arising once in awhile around the community but these do not pose any further danger to the community as they will eventually burn themselves out. The local fire fighting crew is doing 'mop up' activities in areas behind the community and to deal with these 'pockets'. Aside from what's left within the community, there is not much forest left to burn. However, we will be experiencing smoke periodically throughout the next couple of weeks or so.

There are some fires still burning around the area. Therefore no matter which way the wind blows, we will get smoke. There will be local measures taken to deal with this problem in conjunction with the Cree Health Board, on an ongoing basis.

The local Emergency Operations Team have started to slowly wind down their activities, other than, what is necessary and attempt to get things back to normal as much as possible.

The recovery phase of the operations have started.

Although the community itself is intact in terms of loss of property (and life), the same cannot be said of the wildlife habitat within the area because of the immensity of the ongoing forest fire. It is estimated that 100,000 hectares of prime Nemaska trap line territory will burn and the negative impacts upon the traditional livelihood of the local population needs to be assessed further. For instance, many residents have lost their cabins, spring camps, ski-doos, boats, canoes, motors etc...and this also needs to be audited and rectified somehow.

In the end, we all need to count our blessings and WE NEED RAIN.

*****

The next day, it rained and all through the weekend.

*****

The final update 3 was accompanied by a PUBLIC NOTICE from the Public Health Department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, dated July 8, 2002:

Subject: How to protect yourself from the effects of forest fire smoke

The smoke coming from forest fires could harm you. To protect yourself and to maintain your health during this period, we suggest these preventative measures:

This is a message from the Public Health Department, CBHSSJB.

*****

The Community Gathering - a Time to Heal

The following week on July 16, 2002 a Community Gathering was called as an initial step in dealing with the recent traumatic experience emulating from the recent forest fire and the ensuing evacuation. It is well known that people need to deal with their emotions and the personal traumas associated with a catastrophic experience of this magnitude; the sudden uprooting from your home, separation of families, relatives and friends, the damage to personal property, traditional livelihood and hunting territory, the overall change in the surrounding landscape features, etc... We needed a public forum for the people to express themselves together, freely and openly, in a healing manner, as a start to a continued journey. The Gathering was facilitated by the Social Services sector of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay through Bryan Bishop and Marie-France Raymond. There were a lot of emotions expressed during the Gathering with a feeling of gratitude for all who assisted and words of praise to our Creator that our community was spared. The role of the Elders was quite significant during the Gathering as they talked about their experiences of the past relating to famine, hard times, personal tragedies and the human resolve to learn and grow stronger from this experience. There were many who expressed their prayers for us and our homes.

We were often reminded that our Creator has a plan for everything that happens and something good will arise, even if we do not know it now and this often came out during the Gathering.

We do know one thing. The forest and the animals will return in due time, as part of the natural cycle of life, a part of nature that heals by itself and in turn, we will heal through time providing we take the time.

For most of us who remained behind, it was heart-wrenching to be separated from our own families as we knew they were very worried about us and not knowing what was happening. But understandably, we needed to stay behind to protect our homes and our community, as best we could.
When the evacuation took place, there were those of us with certain positions of authority within the community entrusted with the role of responsibility and, by the nature of our jobs, to respond accordingly to the collective needs of our people. There were times when you just wanted to leave and take your own family to safety which is normal human behaviour. But once you are assured that safety can be attained for the others as well, then the burden becomes easier, knowing there are others working with you, and more importantly; you are not alone. We heard one of our personnel telling us, during the time we were all waiting for the buses to arrive for the evacuation, his family was telling him to drive them out right now. After telling them that he needed to remain behind for awhile to help out with the emergency situation, he was bluntly told "you seem to be more concerned with your job than us".

The local fire fighters, who largely became, our front line workers through the duration of the emergency situation needed to have their own 'debriefing' sessions, and these were continually and amply provided by our Resident Wellness Counsellor, Lindsay Brown. His services provided a well accepted and respected venue by the community members, following such an ordeal.

*****

 

 

After the Fire

There are certain lessons to learn from our experience from the perspective of the community:

In June of 1983, we had to be airlifted by helicopter, from the community, because of an approaching forest fire behind the community. We did not have an Access Road going into the community then. This was completed in 1987. But we were lucky because most of our school age children were not in the community as we still had to send our children out, due to a lack of school facilities at that time. I believe the Civil Protection Agency within the Government of Quebec paid for our evacuation costs of over $80,000 due to the use of helicopters and planes, including meals and lodging expenses through an advance with the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec). When the airlift began, the SQ came in and ordered everybody out, first to the Hydro-Quebec work camp and eventually to towns down south by air. I recall flying out by a Water Bomber to Matagami. Although we knew the fire was slowly approaching our community but at a far distance, we were always told by the outside authorities that it was not threatening the community, until it was a few kilometres away. By then, we were in an evacuation phase and all through the night. We never had any opportunity to play a part. It was just 'get out', and SOPFEU usually came in with their own fire fighters, even though we were keenly aware that native people are natural fire fighters. Our people ended up in non-native towns down south, and our young people drowned their pride and dignity in the various bars. Under this scenario, although done with good intentions by the concerned authorities, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming and disheartening.

In 1999, another fire broke out on the far west side of the lake and we decided to fight it on our own. It is common sense that, the best way to fight a forest fire is to fight it, while it is still small and this was our approach. Anyway, we managed to 'snuff it out' at a cost of $45,000 from our own funds towards helicopter costs, and the use of our own fire fighters. When we came to request for reimbursement from the Government authorities, we were told we had no jurisdiction to do this, and we were denied any reimbursement. We had to cut back our Band finances in other areas of our budget in order to absorb this additional cost.

In May 2001, another fire approached the community. Although it started in the same area at the far end of the lake, however, this time we decided not to do anything because of our previous experience a couple of years ago. The fire eventually reached the community from behind, thereby forcing another major evacuation. But this time, not everybody evacuated as we had an Emergency Measures Preparedness Plan in place and this was tested for the first time. The Emergency Operations Team did a remarkable job then, as they took charge of everything within the community with minimal assistance from the SQ, and other outside authorities. SOPFEU provided their aerial monitoring assistance by helicopter, and eventually the Water Bombers came in to 'douse' the fire, much to the euphoria of those who stayed behind. The SOPFEU fire fighters came in mixed with our own local fire fighters to do the 'mop up' activities afterwards. The fire was stopped from entering the community.

We have often been told that the community, in an emergency situation, needs to officially declare a State of Emergency in order to have access to outside funding towards the costs for the necessary operations. We followed this procedure in May 2001, and the total costs we incurred during the State of Emergency amounted to approximately $70,000. When we requested reimbursement from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, we were only able to recover $38,000 of our costs that fell within their criteria, as being reimbursable. We had to absorb and cut back the balance onto some of our Operation and Maintenance Budget provisions of our community services for the second time. It is still our intent to recover the balance of $32,000 we had to spend to protect our community, since it was a cost we incurred arising from this incident.

From our perspective, it is still unclear to us if there are any special powers accorded to the Band Council in a State of Emergency, if only, just for funding purposes and even that falls short.
The incident relating to the sudden absence of the Clinic staff in a time where they are most needed should never be allowed to happen. There is a question of ethics involved here.

The fire this year has empowered the people with a certain measure of self-determination in their quest for continued self-sufficiency in terms of protecting its community by utilizing its own resources. The local Emergency Operations Team did an exceptional job within their area of responsibility. We no longer feel dependent on outside security services, and we can mobilize ourselves effectively, even when the leadership is not in the community when an emergency occurs. Our young people have proven themselves to be an important asset in our community. We have to give them credit in coming through when they did. They were our fire fighters. Our young people have a lot of pent up energy, and quite often they have released that energy by getting into the more 'undesirable' elements of our society, and they have endured a bad rap for it. But, once you channel that energy towards a positive element, its wonders can surprise you. In Nemaska, they have more than proven that to us.

We also need to change the Government policy, insofar as how they view isolated native communities. Most native communities are isolated and very far north. They are not what is considered 'commercially protected' areas for forestry exploitation purposes, and therefore they are not given adequate forest fire protection. They are only protected, when the lives of people are at stake. But even then, the people have to first run for their lives from their communities. Help only seems to arrive after the damage has been done.

They should be accorded with some measure of security, by enacting the simple measure of fighting a forest fire, while it is still small within a twenty (20) kilometre radius through the use of Water Bombers, and other fire fighting capabilities prior to the inevitable costs of evacuation, and its ensuing traumas to the surrounding population. We are certain, some type of preventative measures can be implemented, prior to a forest fire being totally out of control. In Nemaska, the costs associated with our situation will be in excess of $200,000 and we fully expect to have these costs reimbursed to us. The protection of human lives as a public safety issue is very important, but the Cree communities, like Nemaska, are constantly developing their community facilities and the necessary infrastructure required to support a growing population. Some measure of adequate protection should be applied in this respect as these facilities amount to millions of dollars to construct. We recently completed (and in operation) a $6.5 million dollars Waste Water Collection and Treatment System for the community to replace an outdated Septic System. The fire came within 300 feet of these new installations.

The other matter that needs to be considered is that many of us still pursue and practice a traditional way of life which is based on hunting, fishing and trapping. We have lost a lot of our support services in pursuing and maintaining this tradition, in terms of losing our hunting and trapping equipment, snowmobiles, boats, canoes, motors, generators, cabins, spring camps etc...The wildlife habitat within the area will take many years to recover. There should be some measure of security accorded to this, and this could have been avoided.

The Government authorities will protect the areas which are considered 'commercially viable'. There is a lot of money and expense provided for this purpose, through the use of high technological preventative measures. It may be the time for the north to be given due consideration for some measure of public security, including the protection of property, the traditional economy and Cree livelihood.

Approximately a month following the ensuing forest fire, the local trappers whose hunting areas had burnt, were approached by a private forestry company, for their consent to implement a wood recovery plan for their mill down south. It appears the burnt forest has suddenly become valuable and needs to be exploited for its economic potential within a minimum period of two (2) years or else it would be a real waste, according to the forestry company.
The trappers have so far been adamantly opposed to these wood recuperation plans as they know what this means. The wood recovery process is not a pretty sight and northern soil conditions can be very sensitive. Therefore the area can take a life time to regenerate and why add more 'salt to the wound'. Simply put, the trappers do not consider the burnt forest as a waste, but more, the beginning of new life. In their eyes, a forest fire is purely an act of nature, so let nature take care of itself. This has been proven to be the best medicine since time immemorial.
Inevitably, it is the trapper who has to live with the consequences.

Quite recently, on February 7, 2002 the Cree Nation of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee, under the leadership of Grand Chief Ted Moses signed a historic new relationship agreement with the Government of Quebec that is built on mutual respect, cooperation, partnership, in essence ... a nation-to-nation relationship for the next fifty (50) years.

There is a provision within this agreement respecting Hydroelectric Development, which will be fulfilled with a complementary agreement in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, to the effect that Hydro-Quebec renounces its option to undertake the Nottaway/Broadback/Rupert Complex.

It does appear that, the Old Nemaska Post will be spared from being drowned by water.

Finally, on behalf of our community of Nemaska, we are grateful for the kind assistance provided by the Cree Nation of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee, and by everyone during this time of crisis.

Your support and prayers have been well received, appreciated and answered.

Thank You. MEEGWETCH!