This past summer as hundreds of wildfires roared across Manitoba and Ontario, more than 1,000 people from Pimachiowin Aki and nearby First Nations evacuated to Winnipeg. Few people stayed behind. We talked with two of them—Pimachiowin Aki Guardians Dennis Keeper and Melba Green—about their experiences and the impacts of fire on the Land that Gives Life.
We were completely surrounded by fire. You couldn’t even see 10 feet because of the smoke.Pimachiowin Guardian Dennis Keeper, Little Grand First Nation
Five First Nations in the Pimachiowin Aki area—Pauingassi First Nation, Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Bloodvein River First Nation, Berens River First Nation and Red Sucker Lake First Nation—were affected by heavy smoke from forest fires burning near their communities.
By July, close to 130 wildfires were burning in Manitoba. Most had been started by natural causes like lightning. Travel and fire bans were issued. Severe drought made fires difficult to fight.
An hour to pack and leave
“We had dry lightning (lightning without rain) a couple of days before evacuations,” said Little Grand Rapids First Nation Guardian Dennis Keeper. “We were completely surrounded by fire. You couldn’t even see 10 feet because of the smoke.” Dennis’ wife had an hour to pack a bag and leave, but Dennis stayed behind along with a handful of others, including two Elders.
Little Grand Rapids has been without power for months, reported Dennis. Thousands of dollars of food spoiled in evacuated homes and stores. Like everyone who stayed put in his community, Dennis has been eating fish and whatever he has in his pantry. The First Nation sends in food hampers about every three weeks.
Food spoiled, hydro poles burned
Each household was given a generator when the fire took out hydro poles, said Dennis. He maintains the generators for Elders and the local water treatment plant. “I fuel up the generators twice a day and do maintenance for them about every 50 hours,” he said.
Bloodvein River First Nation Guardian Melba Green said that her community fared somewhat better. Residents returned home in late August while evacuees from Little Grand Rapids First Nation remain in Winnipeg.
Quiet and dark
Along with Melba, about 60 people stayed in Bloodvein River First Nation. Each household was given a generator. Without vehicles or heavy equipment working, Melba said it was “quiet and dark.”
To deal with smoke in Bloodvein River First Nation, residents covered their windows with tarps or plastic. “We closed off vents in our homes so that smoke wouldn’t enter, and hung blankets in front of doors,” Melba explained.
In Bloodvein River First Nation, fire burned eastward toward traplines 4 and 5, she said. “They had it under control in early August but there was still smoke for weeks.”
Bloodvein River experienced a fire in the 1980s that was closer to the community but this  was worse,” Melba said. “Because of the dry ground and trees, it was out of control.”
But nature is bouncing back in Melba’s community. In August, rains finally came. Leaves started to green and plants began to bloom again, she said.
“The fire grew into a monster in just a few days.”Pimachiowin Guardian Dennis Keeper, Little Grand First Nation
Ashes falling everywhere
“The fire grew into a monster in just a few days,” reported Dennis. He said that as fires peaked, rivers near Little Grand Rapids First Nation were completely grey from ash. The community’s 120 water tanks are also ash-filled, and need to be drained and cleaned.
“Most of my trapline burned,” said Dennis. “Boats and motors were lost. My cabin was saved—the firefighters put a sprinkler around it. They tried to save other cabins, but the fire was too huge.
“Even the muskeg burned,” he noted. “It doesn’t usually burn but this time it burned.”
Little Grand Rapids First Nation is still without power, said Dennis. October 31 is the possible restoration date.
Difficulties of hotel life
Melba said she was “glad when everybody returned to Bloodvein.” While in Winnipeg, her fellow community members worried about their homes. They also grew tired of being cooped up in hotel rooms. “They became homesick. The little ones wanted to come home.”
Evacuated community members from Little Grand Rapids First Nation remain in hotels in Winnipeg. Dennis said that while they’re happy to be safe, they are anxious to return home. “Quite a few people have passed away,” he said. People find it hard to be away from life on the land. They miss traditional food.
The return date for evacuees is unknown.
“I counted 18 bears roaming around.”Pimachiowin Guardian Dennis Keeper, Little Grand First Nation
Effects on wildlife
This year, a dry summer made food like wild berries scarce. Across Pimachiowin Aki, in the boreal forest, wildlife had difficulty finding food. After wildfires burned much of the limited vegetation available, wildlife began entering communities.
Dennis experienced one bear trying to break into his home while he ate fish one day. “I counted 18 bears one day roaming around the community,” he said. Black bears are breaking into empty homes looking for food. The Northern Store was ransacked by hungry animals as well. The conditions are unusual. “We have a big pack of wolves here right now, possibly preying on bears,” Dennis said.
But amid the struggles are signs of normal life. During the time that Bloodvein River First Nation was evacuated, Melba saw a family of otters playing on rocks by the river. She also witnessed a young moose swimming across the Bloodvein River.
100 years of resources following a wildfire
In Pimachiowin Aki, survival depends on knowing where to find resources for harvesting throughout the year. Traditional knowledge about wildfire has been passed down through generations—wildfire has a significant effect on which type of plants grow in the area and which wildlife species thrive or relocate in search of food and cover. The infographic below demonstrates traditional knowledge of how wildfire changes vegetation, which in turn affects the movement of wildlife, including moose, marten and hare.
Did you know?
Fire changes how we hunt
Trapping and hunting sites have shifted over time in Pimachiowin Aki in response to the movement of animals and changes in habitat following a wildfire. When desired animals become scarce in one area, people join friends and relatives in other areas where those animals are abundant. This gives animals and their habitats time to recover. When populations are healthy again, people can return to harvest.
Some trees are fire resistant
Trees in fire-prone areas develop thicker bark, in part, because thick bark does not catch fire or burn easily. It also protects the inside of the trunk, the living tissues that transport water and nutrients, from heat damage.
“Fire doesn’t go into old fire areas for 10 to 15 years,” Dennis explained. “Certain trees like willows and some poplars are fireproof and don’t burn.”
Some trees need fire
Jack pine grow where soil is sandy and has serotinous cones (protected by a waxy coating) that require the heat of fire to release their seeds. Fire also produces favourable conditions for the seeds of these pines to germinate.
“For jack pine to germinate they need fire to open the seed, said Dennis. “That’s how forests regenerate.”
Blueberries flourish after a fire
Blueberries flourish on thin, mineral soil. Blueberry patches can be found three to ten years after a fire. Some Elders say they have traveled half a day by foot from camp sites to harvest berries at prime collecting areas that had burned several years earlier.
By the numbers
At the end of August, the province of Manitoba reported that there were 105 active fires still burning across the province, with 441 fires to date. They also reported that four large fires in western Manitoba, north of Flin Flon and Snow Lake, continued to burn.
During this unprecedented fire season, Manitoba firefighters received out of province assistance from across Canada as well as internationally, including aircraft, equipment and personnel from the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Parks Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces, the State of Michigan, and as far away of South Africa.
As of August 18, 3.9 million hectares of land in Canada were affected by wildfires this summer, according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
Feature photo: Melba Green
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