Wildfire evacuation experiences of band members of Whitefish Lake First Nation 459, Alberta, Canada

Abstract

This paper presents results of a study which examined how a mandatory wildfire evacuation affected members of Whitefish Lake First Nation 459, in Alberta, Canada. A qualitative case study approach was used, and semi-structured interviews were completed with 45 band members to learn about their evacuation experiences during the wildfire evacuation in May 2011 and explore the factors that complicated the evacuation process and put further strain on the evacuees and First Nation. This evacuation caused considerable distress for evacuees and had negative effects for the First Nation. Factors that affected evacuation experiences included: (1) transportation issues compounded by cultural land-use activities, (2) fear of home loss compounded by existing housing shortages, (3) information and lack of media interest, (4) language, (5) poverty, (6) large multi-generational families, (7) health concerns, and (8) reimbursement of evacuation-related expenses to the community. An overarching factor that affected the entire evacuation was jurisdiction. Based on these findings, recommendations are provided for emergency managers on improving wildfire evacuation experiences for Indigenous peoples.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A band is the basic unit of government for First Nations people in Canada under the Indian Act (Government of Canada 1867).

  2. 2.

    This has now been changed, and First Nations communities in Alberta impacted by disaster now apply for funding reimbursement directly to the federal government through the Emergency Management Assistance Program (EMAP).

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Acknowledgements

We thank all participants who shared their stories with us. We specifically thank the community research assistants, Sharon Sahlin and Sheila Laboucan. We thank Councillor Darren Auger, former Chief Robert Grey, current Chief Albert Thunder, and Paul Thunder for their valuable advice and support. We acknowledge Winston Delorme (Alberta Emergency Management Agency) who provided details on the response in High Prairie, and John Little (Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada) who assisted in creating the figures used in this article. This research was funded by a grant from the Alberta Centre for Child, Family, and Community research (now PolicyWise for Children & Families).

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Correspondence to Amy Cardinal Christianson.

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Christianson, A.C., McGee, T.K. Wildfire evacuation experiences of band members of Whitefish Lake First Nation 459, Alberta, Canada. Nat Hazards 98, 9–29 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-018-3556-9

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Keywords

  • Wildfire
  • Natural hazard
  • Evacuation
  • Health
  • First Nation
  • Canada