A few weeks ago in early June, I witnessed much of the first fire-related evacuation of Mistissini. I watched as lightning struck from the sky. Soon after, I could see a small plume of smoke reach for the sky. It would grow thicker and you knew another fire was on its way to being a problem. There were six fires around the community and those grew to many, many more.
The evacuation, though, was more orderly than one might have expected for a community of this size. The local police were at the band office checking people out. They made sure people had enough gas to make it to Chibougamau. When they arrived in the neighboring town they were told to go to the arena if they didn’t have a place to stay.
Our family had no problem, perhaps because my father, Ken Nicholls, used to be a Chief Fire Inspector. He had even fought a huge forest fire in Moosonee. At that time they brought in the Hercules transport planes to evacuate the communities.
Back then we listened avidly to the radio for news. It was the same at Mistissini. That’s the first thing you should always do, as regular updates will keep you informed. This also leads to less chances of panicking.
Another good idea is to gather your pets and put them in one room. People have died refusing to leave Fluffy to the flames. If you plan to bring your pets then make sure you have a way to safely transport them. You don’t want to go off the road because Rex is attempting to climb on your lap for reassurance. Pets smell the smoke and they know it isn’t a BBQ. They freak out just like humans, so be ready.
Arrange for temporary shelter with friend or relatives who aren’t in the danger zone. Many Crees had to stay in gyms in Chibougamau. Those with foresight had already snapped up all available hotel rooms.
If you know where you are going, leave a large note on your door saying where you will be and how you can be contacted. This speeds up the search and allows for more of a safety margin for those left behind to “get the hell out of Dodge.”
Another tip is to gather important documents such as passports and mementos and keep them in a container so you can easily grab it and go. You can also save family pictures and grandmom’s wedding ring this way. It helps to give you piece of mind.
Also bring changes of clothing, including (especially) underwear. You’d be surprised at how many people forget fresh undies. Don’t forget hygiene and pack soap, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush.
Make sure you have water and snacks. While Mistissini’s evacuation was relatively orderly it was still time consuming and you or the kids may get hungry or thirsty.
Take it easy and don’t panic when you evacuate as you may have an accident and hinder the evacuation.
One last thing: don’t forget debit cards, credit cards and any cash you may have on hand. You will have to live on them for a while.
I wasn’t home for Mistissini’s second evacuation June 16 but it has been hot all over Eeyou Itschee and it still isn’t safe. We might even see a piece of the heat wave coming in from out west. This will further increase the danger.
Be very careful when in the bush. Mistissini’s fires so far this year have been started by lightning, but human carelessness in the forests can be just as devastating.
Thanks to Ken Nicholls for helping with the evacuation tips.