B.C. officials concerned with mental health of wild fire evacuees

In 2018, Fannie Vance watched her community of Telegraph Creek in B.C. burn because of a wildfire.

She was forced to flee the Tahltan community of 200 located about 400 km south of the B.C., Yukon border.

Vance managed the Riversong, the Tahltan band’s café and lodge.

It was built during the gold rush and sits along the Stikine River.

While many community members had already left, Vance stayed back to help feed and house some of the first firefighters – but not for long.

“They just sat down and we served them their burgers,” Vance told APTN News in October 2018 when she returned to the site.

According to Vance, her partner came running in and said, “We gotta get out of here now!  The fire’s coming down the creek. Drop everything, we gotta go.”

Vance jumped into her truck with her dog and fled.

Today, Vance says she still suffers from a reoccurring nightmare and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I see the fire come over that hill like a tidal wave,” she says.

mental health
The wildfire approaches Telegraph Creek in 2018.

It’s for this reason that the mental health team at the First Nation Health Authority (FNHA) in B.C. has placed fire evacuation at the top of its list of other mental health issues affecting First Nations Peoples.

“This is a really challenging wildfire season for B.C. First Nations,” said Dr. Nel Wieman, acting deputy chief medical officer for the FNHA. “There is a lot going on right now.”

This is just the start of a fire season that seems to get worse year by year. With weeks, even months left to go, some fear will be the worst fire season in history.

“For those that are living through yet another horrific fire season this is a graphic reminder of how climate change is with us,” said Premier John Horgan. “Not just intermittently but all the time. Whether its successive difficult fire seasons or floods or the heat dome which we are hopeful but that’s not the evidence that we are seeing on the horizon.”

The fires aren’t helping what has already been a stressful year for many First Nations people.

On top of the threat against their communities by fire, the year has been full of traumatic announcements including the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools in B.C. and in other provinces.

“There is a lot of trauma people are experiencing and re-experiencing,” said Wieman. “Evacuees have actually experienced racist comments when they’ve arrived at the evacuation centers and in some cases, people feel that they are treated not as well as non- indigenous evacuees. For example, being housed in hotel rooms that are substandard.”

Research shows that First Nations wildfire evacuations is a larger issue than most think.

“First Nation communities are disproportionately impacted by wildfire in Canada,” said Amy Christianson, fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. “We’ve had over a thousand wildfire events across the nation and 49 per cent of those in our recent analysis are actually of Indigenous communities with greater than 50 per cent indigenous population.”

Christianson says officials still have yet to really speak to First Nations evacuees about their unique experiences.

Fannie Vance surveying the property where her house once stood in Telegraph Creek after it was destroyed by a wildfire in 2018. Photo: APTN.

One area that is working – communities stepping up to lend a helping hand.

“Where we are seeing most success is when First nations are set up to help in host communities,” she said. One example is T’kamlups in Kamloops. They have just done a fantastic job back in 2018 evacuations but also this year where they set up their pow wow grounds to host evacuees”

The anxiety that comes along with an evacuation order ahead of a wildfire isn’t surprising.

“One of the reasons people become so distressed is because none of what’s happening to them is within their control,” says Wieman. “Having to live with that uncertainty going forward even for weeks or months at a time is really stressful for people so again that’s another reason we encourage and we are trying to offer as many mental health supports as possible.”

With files from Laurie Hamelin

For information on wildfire resources and supports in British Columbia go to First Nations Health Authority.

Kuu-us Crisis Line Society provides crisis services for Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia. Adults and Elders: 250-723-4050; children and youth line 250-723-2040. Or call toll free 1-800-588-8717.

Metis Crisis Line is a services of Métis Nation British Columbia. Call 1-833-MétisBC (1-833-638-4722).

Tsow-Tun Le Lum Society offers supports for people, including residential school survivors, who are struggling with addiction, substance use and trauma. Call 1-888-403-3123.

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