B.C. First Nations say they are encouraged that the federal government is reaching out to Indigenous communities and developing natural disaster management programs, ahead of the wildfire season.
“It’s so nice to see us try to interweave ourselves and become one family. We have to fight these things together,” Howard Grant, a councillor with the Musqueam First Nation, told a news conference in Vancouver.
“We need to look at each other to say, ‘How are we going to do that together?’”
On Friday, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced $24.7 million to be spent over five years to establish a new secretariat to respond to natural disasters and train more firefighters across the country.
In addition, $416 million will be available for communities impacted by wildfires, such as Lytton, B.C., which Blair visited a day earlier.
He said the federal government has received 14 requests for assistance involving wildfires in 2021 compared to the five previous years when it only received four requests in total.
Ottawa will also province funding to First Nations across the country to prepare for, prevent and mitigate emergency events, including wildfires.
The Trudeau government already allocated $516 million in its April budget to train more firefighters, help communities buy firefighting equipment, and develop a new wildfire monitoring satellite system.
It will also provide $8.4 million to support emergency preparedness and response in First Nations communities in B.C.
At least 1,500 fires burned more than 850,000 hectares in 2021, which was the third-worst year on record.
A cooler, damper start to 2022 has eased early wildfire worries but officials say they are closely watching the Okanagan, Thompson-Nicola and Peace regions as conditions start to warm up.
Blair assured the residents of Lytton Thursday that federal relief dollars are on the way.
The community is still in the process of debris cleanup and removal, nearly one year after the deadly disaster.
“I came here to assure the mayor, the councillors and community that we are working as expeditiously as possible to get money to the province so they can get money to this community,” Blair said.
On June 30, 2021, a massive and unrelenting fire forced about 300 people to evacuate Lytton, and watch as the flames destroyed houses, a health centre, a post office, the grocery store and more.
Two people died, more were injured, and many residents remain scattered in hotels, with family, or in the handful of homes still standing within the community.
“I relayed to him our most urgent priorities and I feel confident that by September, our residents will be able to go back to their homes and that the village will be well on its way to being rebuilt,” Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said, after touring with the minister.
“We’re sort of faced with the issue of our residents wanting to be back yesterday, yet as a village, we’re looking to be a town that is going to be here for 100 years. Those two objectives sort of clash at times.”
Since the disaster, the municipal, provincial and federal governments have all been criticized for the slow pace of Lytton’s recovery. As of Thursday, the site was still considered “toxic,” Polderman said.
The mayor has repeatedly explained that delays have been due to a number of factors, including 87 days spent waiting for toxicology reports and safe work procedures, and two months spent sifting through the wreckage. Catastrophic floods last November also wiped out nearby roads, hampering efforts, while the winter brought on “the biggest dump of snow” the mayor has observed in 33 years.
Earlier this month, the sifting and removal process was delayed further as some impacted homes were built on a culturally significant site to the Nlaka’pamux Nation, and the B.C. government has committed to identifying and preserving any archeological findings before rebuilding can begin.
-with files from Elizabeth McSheffrey
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