Okanagan Chief inspired by community’s ‘strength and resilience’ in face of wildfire

Chief Byron Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band says with devastating losses comes the chance to reclaim traditional land practices.

The White Rock Lake wildfire has burned through berry patches, hunting grounds and ceremonial sites, destroying many beloved homes where sqilxw families have raised up several generations. 

People living in Okanagan Indian Band IR #1 have been under an evacuation order since Aug 1, and that order was expanded on Sunday to include the northern end of the OKIB community. Today the order was partially rescinded for the Head of the Lake and Round Lake areas.

Byron Louis is Chief of the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), which includes over 2,000 members. 

Louis confirms ten homes and a locally-owned business have perished in this fire, which was first discovered on July 13 and is one of 262 wildfires currently burning in B.C. 

“We’re still dealing with the actual fire, but we also have to deal with the process of recovery and we can’t stop one to start with the other, because you can’t operate like that.”

OKIB leadership has been working to keep community members informed and to ensure mental health supports are available to all evacuees.

Ceremonies began immediately following the devastating losses on Sunday, and on Monday evening, OKIB hosted a community meeting via Zoom which was attended by over 160 people. 

During the meeting, community leadership shared heartbreaking news of the losses sustained by the community while workers from the band’s Emergency Operations Centre made themselves available for questions.

Louis says while the situation remains “volatile,” he appreciates how community members have stepped up to support each other.

“I’m [also] affected,” says the Chief, who’s been working from a hotel room in Vernon, on his syilx home territory. 

“I’m sitting here and the home that we had and raised our children in is in the path of a fire — along with everyone else.”

Inspired by OKIB’s ‘strength and resilience’

Louis says they are now working diligently to look ahead at what’s to come. 

“We have so much to do after this,” he says.

“[We have] our watersheds that have been drastically impacted. We have wildlife that is now displaced. It’s not just us — it’s also them that we’re dependent on. They have to go through a winter where their area and sustenance has all been destroyed, so how do we ensure they are also taken care of?

“We have to look at the mitigation of flood, flood damage,” he says, adding that this crisis comes with an opportunity for Indigenous leadership to apply traditional knowledge to restore and rehabilitate the land. 

“We want to actually practice our past practices,” he says. For example, “If we have berry grounds, then don’t plant trees in there.

“We have the ability to improve moose habitat and also ensure that elk are allowed to recover. We also have the ability to reintroduce animals [like beavers] that were in that particular area, but [have] now been displaced.”

As ceremonies and prayers continue to strengthen the community, and support services do their best to control the fires, Louis says OKIB leadership is committed to getting people back home. 

Asked what he admires most about his community, the chief says it’s their “strength and resilience.”

The fire has been “very devastating to our people, but we’ve stayed calm when orders were given,” he says. 

“They knew this was in the best interest in their family.”

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