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Chief Marilyn Slett says Heiltsuk should be given more power to deal with emergencies

Denny island fire

A fire on Denny Island near Bella Bella knocked out power to the Heiltsuk Nation this weekend.

Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett says the Central Coast First Nation should be given more power to deal with emergencies after waiting over 48 hours to hear from the province as a wildfire burned near Bella Bella.

At around midnight, between Feb. 3 and 4, power to Bella Bella was knocked out during a windstorm. Around the same time a wildfire could be seen burning on neighbouring Denny Island.

Heiltsuk communications coordinator Ayla Brown said they received little to no response from the provincial government or the B.C. Wildfire Service.

“It took until 10:10 on Monday morning for us to hear from the province,” she said.

In the meantime, the Heiltsuk were running generators for power, conducting aerial surveys of the fire and preparing to evacuate Denny Island.

heiltsuk

The Heiltsuk conducted an aerial survey of the wildfire. (Trevor Waddell)

“What we could see is very high flames coming over the tree line,” Brown said.

According to a statement from the B.C. Wildfire Service dated Feb. 6, a power transmission line was damaged in a windstorm and started the fire, which stayed on the ground and didn’t get into the trees.

“B.C. Wildfire hasn’t been here, so I really don’t know where they’re getting their information from,” Brown said.

Forests Minister Steve Thompson said a fire officer found out about the fire around 1 a.m. Saturday and immediately notified the Heiltsuk along with the Bella Bella fire chief and the RCMP, who dispatched a boat to take a closer look.

Thompson said the dispatcher was in constant contact with the Heiltsuk.

“I am confident that the B.C. Wildfire Service acted appropriately,” he said in a statement.

“B.C. Wildfire Service took an overview flight of the fire site this [Monday] afternoon. There was no smoke visible. The fire was contained to the power line right-of-way,” said Thompson.

“While Emergency Management B.C.  is prepared to offer evacuation support if it were necessary, no requests for assistance have been or are expected to be made by the Heiltsuk or the Central Coast Regional District for this event, given its limited consequence.”

A B.C. Wildfire service spokesperson said it’s common to let small wildfires burn, so long as they are determined not to be a threat to people or property.

According to Boralex, the company that owns the transmission line, the fire was extinguished Monday morning.

Echoes of the Nathan E. Stewart

Slett said the lack of response echoes the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart tug in October 2016.

As diesel leaked into the ocean, the Heiltsuk responded while waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive.

Nathan E. Stewart spill

An early picture of spill and rescue efforts for the Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella, British Columbia. (Canadian Coast Guard)

“The Heiltsuk were first responders to the fire on Friday night and, just like with the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart, found ourselves in the frustrating position of not having the proper equipment, resources and training to respond fully to the situation,” Slett said in a release.

“Anywhere else in the province, the fire would have been put out immediately.”

Slett said the solution is to increase the resources given to the Heitlsuk, so it can respond to disasters itself.

“We have the geographical advantage to respond to these situations, as well as the human capital and strong motivation to care for our homelands.”

‘Out of sight, out of mind’

Brown said there was very little communication  all weekend from the province about what was happening and what, if any, response would be put in place.

“We haven’t been hearing a whole lot, except they don’t work on weekends. They don’t have any resources to send up here,” she said.

“It really sends a message to our community: out of sight, out of mind.”

Bella Bella Denny Island

Residents on Bella Bella could see flames from the fire to the east on Denny Island. (Google Maps)

She acknowledged the fire was relatively small but said problems were exacerbated by having to switch over to diesel generators all weekend while the substation was out of commission.

“Those generators are not meant to last long-term, but the power company can’t get in to restore our hydro power until someone comes and puts this fire out.”