On June 12, after what has been the driest summer reported in northern Quebec in over 40 years, a fire began to burn in the bush near the community of Eastmain. But, unlike any other area below the 51st parallel, this fire was just left to burn, out of control until June 29 when a crew from the Ministère de la Sécurité publique was dispatched to start fighting the blaze.
The question remains as to why this blaze was allowed to burn for 17 whole days without any provincial or federal body stepping in to deal with it before it raged out of control.
According to Jacques Viger, the regional director for the Ministère de la Sécurité publique, forces from the south only arrived on the scene at the end of June because it was then that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) made the call to start fighting the fire because it posed a threat to human lives.
It was at this point that AAND and Eastmain evacuated the community’s most vulnerable individuals, approximately 250, to Val-d’Or. Fearing further carnage, the highway was closed down for several days leaving many stranded north and south of the afflicted area.
But that doesn’t mean that the fire was entirely extinguished.
Once the immediate crisis had been averted, the highway was reopened and Crees started returning to their homes. Eastmain residents however quickly discovered that the fire was still blazing.
By July 10, the fire had already razed 650,000 hectares to the ground. It continues to burn because woods north of the 51st parallel are not considered to be commercially profitable.
“This is the way the law is: when you have forests that are not commercially profitable, we let the fires burn because it would be a waste of time, energy and financial resources to put them out,” said Viger.
In regions south of the 51st parallel throughout the rest of the province, once a forest fire starts, the provincial government along with SOPFEU (la Société de protection des forêts contre le feu) fight it until it is out.
But, funding for this is provided by the province and the industries operating in the region such forestry and mining companies.
“Above the 51st parallel, if there is no forestry, mining or other activities in that area then we protect just the people and say goodbye to the rest.
“This is the way it is and there will need to be a change in the legislation to fix the situation. When you want to see change here, you need to put up the money behind it and in this day and age, it is money that drives our governments,” said Viger.
But while AAND is technically the body in charge of this particular area above the 51st, according to their website, the only responsibility they really hold is to support Aboriginal communities through their emergency plans in the event of a forest fire.
After several attempts to get in touch with AAND about why the forest fires were allowed to burn for so long, AAND’s media response team emailed the following to the Nation.
“Ressources naturelles Québec is responsible for the management of forest fires in Quebec, including in the province’s northern regions. The Government of Quebec has provided SOPFEU with the mandate to survey and fight forest fires in the province. The decision to intervene was made based on monitoring performed by SOPFEU.”
And since SOPFEU is only responsible for monitoring fires in the north and not actually putting them out, responsibility has once again been shifted from the feds and back on to the province
It isn’t difficult to figure out why this system exists. As Viger explained, the cost of fighting forest fires is astronomical when you consider the thousands of dollars a day it costs to get that kind of equipment up and running in the north and then you add on the hefty price tag for the workers and their expenses. These costs rise significantly when you are dealing with areas without roads.
But, these costs could be comparable as evacuating a community also comes with a hefty price tag. Planes alone cost about $4000/ hour and it took several of them to evacuate Eastmain residents to Val-d’Or and then return them a week later. Then there is the cost of hotels and meals.
“In the intensive area (south of the 51st Parallel), we don’t let these fires burn out of control in the first place and so it doesn’t cost as much to deal with them right away. Occasionally a fire will burn out of control, but then we will just work harder to get it under control,” said Viger.
According to Eastmain Chief Edward Gilpin, the fires should have been fought from the point of ignition, prior to spreading but that is easier said than done.
“As I always say, there is this red tape that can only get cleared up by an emergency, one that involves human lives in the community.
“When the other kind of emergency strikes, like if we say that our forests and traplines are burning, then there’s the confusion over who is responsible. Is it the Minister of Natural Resources? The responsibility for this is still very much in the air and it has never been settled as to who should handle this,” said Gilpin.
Yet Gilpin was unfazed by the government’s reaction as he knew it was coming. Looking back to his previous position as the president of the Cree Trappers’ Association from 1984-2000, Gilpin said there had been a proposal from a pilot at Wemindji Air to keep the necessary equipment on the ready at their base in Radisson.
“This was a proposal made by the trappers, but the government and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs decided that they wouldn’t put any money into this and the reasoning they gave is because they called it a ‘wasteland.’ This is because the muskegs and the trees didn’t have any commercial value,” said Gilpin.
By the time the fires began to have an impact on the rest of the province, making national headlines, knocking out power in Montreal’s metro system and at Six Flag’s amusement park, La Ronde, on July 4 as well as for over half a million residential customers, Gilpin was actually in Montreal to witness the drama.
“This was very unnecessary, simply because nobody wanted to spend the money to put out the fire right away and then we wouldn’t have encountered all of these expenses.
“Then again, there are people who have never seen James Bay making decisions at a government level,” said Gilpin.
At the same time, weeks later, the people of Eeyou Istchee are still trying to assess the damage done on their traplines, particularly when it comes to how hunting and trapping for food in the coming months.
At KM 409, Gilpin said he and his family lost the brand-new cabins they had just built for his in-laws, sister-in-law and another individual.
And the losses keep mounting for other Crees whose camps and other belongings were lost in the blaze.
Back in Eastmain however, it is the loss of wildlife that really has the community talking. Many of the local hunters and trappers have been exchanging stories about the carcasses they have seen of animals that simply didn’t have the time to get away because the wind carried the fire over so quickly.
“The local guys here reported one of a porcupine hanging from a tree, completely cooked to it,” said Gilpin.