Wildfire Evacuation and Emergency Management in Remote First Nations: The Case of Sandy Lake First Nation, Northern Ontario

  • Author / Creator
    Asfaw, Henok W
  • Many decades of successful wildfire suppression in Ontario have resulted in very few losses of life or property. However, the evacuations that often accompany wildfire suppression have continued to disrupt many remote First Nations in the province. Sandy Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario was forced to evacuate due to a wildfire that came within nine kilometers of the community in 2011, threatening safety and substantially reducing air quality. Following a community declaration of emergency, residents were airlifted and scattered to 12 cities and towns in Ontario and Manitoba. Using a qualitative community-based research approach, this study explored how residents of Sandy Lake First Nation were prepared for and affected by the 2011 evacuation. Social constructionism was employed as a guiding theoretical approach. A total of 56 interviews and two focus group discussions were completed with the evacuated band members, those who stayed behind, and people who had a management role during the evacuation. The latter group included the Chief and Council, frontline workers, and community evacuation liaisons. After describing and documenting the evacuation using eight temporal stages of the evacuation, this thesis provides an in-depth and nuanced exploration of the wide range of factors affecting the residents’ evacuation experiences. First, the thesis examines how issues related to preparedness and during-event communication influenced band members’ experiences. These issues included a delay in obtaining site-specific and reliable information about the wildfires, a lack of clarity about the protocols to be followed in declaring a community state of emergency and perceived constraints in government wildfire management policy. The lack of overall community preparedness to respond to wildfire emergencies was found to be a main factor aggravating vulnerabilities to wildfire emergency. Second, the thesis explores the impact that the government’s evacuation operation had on Sandy Lake First Nation and how that affected the band members. This study has shown that scattering residents to more than 10 hosting communities throughout Ontario and Manitoba caused four major problems: communication and information-sharing were more difficult, families were separated, community cohesion and support services were disrupted, and residents’ sense of place attachment was impacted. These findings contribute to a robust understanding of the social and cultural factors influencing wildfire evacuation experiences of Indigenous people and how these influence the ability that First Nations community resident have to cope with or adapt to evacuation-related disruptions. Third, this study examines individual characteristics of the evacuees (e.g., age, income, health conditions and vulnerabilities induced through cultural, and/or social barriers) and the services provided in the host communities that affect evacuees’ experiences. This study found that elders’ experiences were affected by the following factors: continuation of health service at the host community, dealing with health issues in the absence of family support, accommodation-related challenges and cultural factors related to language barriers and a lack of access to traditional food. The study also identified a combination of factors that negatively affected the experience of other evacuees. These included inadequate accommodations; financial problems; a lack of activities; racism; alcohol and substance abuse and inappropriate behavior; and concern over the condition of homes, property and pets. This study found factors that contributed to evacuees’ positive experiences in host communities including material and emotional support from local residents, perceptions of the evacuation as a free vacation and an opportunity to socialize with fellow community members, and leadership from the Chief. The results of this thesis underscore the fundamental importance of building community capacity to deal with hazards and emergencies by taking into account the unique characteristics of Indigenous residents.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2018
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
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