Academic journal article Human Organization

Asking for a Disaster: Being "At Risk" in the Emergency Evacuation of a Northern Canadian Aboriginal Community

Academic journal article Human Organization

Asking for a Disaster: Being "At Risk" in the Emergency Evacuation of a Northern Canadian Aboriginal Community

Article excerpt

In June of 2011, shifting winds pushed a 4,400 hectare forest fire dangerously close to the remote Dene and Métis community at Wollaston Lake, in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada (Figure 1). Over a period of only twelve hours, the community was mobilized for evacuation, and most of the 1,300 residents moved out. What has been called a "perfect storm" of calamities created somewhat unique conditions, even for a small isolated Aboriginal community in the northern boreal forest. As is the case for many Aboriginal communities in northern Canada, there is no permanent road into the community; in summer, people boat across a bay from the nearest road landing, and in winter, they drive or snowmobile across the ice on a temporary ice-road. When the fire erupted, the north was experiencing a late spring: while ice remained in the bay, blocking boats, it was too thin for driving. So air lifting was the only means by which the people could be evacuated. There is an airstrip in the community, and two small commercial airlines are based there. However, soon after the evacuation started, thickening smoke began to make aircraft operations difficult. Then one of the planes clipped the terminal building, shutting down the airport to planes. The Canadian government responded by sending in military helicopters to transport the people to a nearby mining depot where a military transport plane could land and remove the evacuees to several southern cities. Finally, as if things could not be worse, the community was in the middle of an election for Chief and Council for the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation, which represents the majority of residents at Wollaston Lake, and there was no government in office when the fire started. The call to evacuate was made by the director of the local health facility. However, once ordered, the evacuation took on a martial tone with residents not only encouraged and ultimately ordered to leave but also cajoled and allegedly even threatened with arrest if they did not heed the evacuation order. The local contingent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assisted in ensuring compliance, and there were unconfirmed reports of them using mild force to ensure intransigent residents complied by leaving their homes and rendezvousing at the designated muster points.

Most evacuees were initially flown to Points North Landing, the small mining depot at the end of the highway in northern Saskatchewan, about fifteen minutes flying time from Wollaston Lake. From there, they were airlifted south. Overall, evacuees spent about ten days in various evacuation facilities or "temporary shelters" (Quarantelli 1982) in the small cities of La Ronge and Prince Albert, as well as Saskatoon; at some 250,000 people, Saskatoon is the largest city in the province. They were sheltered primarily in hotels and large sports facilities before being allowed to return home. The fire burned to the very edges of the community, but there was no loss of property inside the community boundary and only one loss of life, an elder who died while in a shelter.

In remote northern Canadian communities such as Wollaston Lake, mandatory evacuation in the case of wildfire or flooding is common and occurs annually. While provinces have forest firefighting crews, fires often bum erratically, accelerate, or change direction unpredictably and create serious smoke hazards even where the fires themselves do not reach the communities. In some cases, where there are no communities or key resources nearby, fires are simply allowed to bum. But, of course, sometimes fires enter the communities and cause extensive devastation, as was the case in Slave Lake, Alberta, where a 2011 fire destroyed roughly one-third of the town. Unlike disaster-related evacuations in more accessible locations, such as urban areas with extensive road networks or where people have the financial and other means to relocate themselves (Blinn-Pike et al. 2006), the factors described above meant that people in Wollaston Lake were entirely dependent on government resources to evacuate, and it was not possible to move everyone out more or less at the same time. …

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