When Dan Wilson, a councillor for the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), evacuated his home on August 4 due to the White Rock Lake wildfire, he made sure to gather his photos — including ones from 1987, when he spent a season conducting controlled burns around B.C.
“Basically, we were paid to use napalm to start fires [and] to burn cut blocks for replanting,” Wilson tells IndigiNews. “We had to be good at putting out the fires we started.”
Wilson was working for Global Fire Services at the time, a private firefighting service and retardant production crew, alongside several other OKIB members — many of whom have also been impacted by this summer’s wildfires.
He finds it ironic, he says, that the same men he worked alongside are now living out of hotels, due to the wildfires that have moved through the community.
Hank Cameron was their crew boss at the time, and although he’s not Indigenous, he says he strategically hired the largely Indigenous crew.
“I had done some firefighting with Indigenous Peoples before,” says Cameron.
“You never had to tell [them] the basic things. When people don’t work in the bush, they may not know exactly how to get around, or even find their pickup at the end of the day,” he says, laughing.
When assembling his crew in 1987, he called up a friend from the OKIB to ask if she knew any young people in the community who might be a good fit.
“She had some guys that were all hockey players in their 20s. They were ideal, and already a cohesive group. It’s different than hiring off the street and trying to make a team. When you already have a team, that’s a lot better,” Cameron says.
The crew of mostly OKIB members included: Kelly Bonneau, Dempsey Gregoire, Byron Louis, Darin Louis, Dean Louis, Nathan Louis, Jimmy Marchand, David Lloyd Wilson, John Henry Wilson, late Leland Wilson, and the late Phillip “Tippy” Wilson.
From this group, Cameron says he learned what it means to “get along — and of course, the humour.”
Wilson says he remembers really well the crew, and the hard labour.
“The first week — we call it ‘hell week,’ because you’re so out of shape. You’re going to bed sore, waking up sore, sometimes damp. But after the first five days, you can almost get used to anything,” he tells IndigiNews over the phone from his hotel room.
“We lived in tents. We would be up at daybreak. We had a cook who cooked for camp, then we would head up to work and work all day. We had packed lunches and at the end of the day, we would come back to camp and have another meal. If it was a rainy day or a fire got away from us, we would work overtime to get it under control. So there were times when we had cold suppers.”
The work wasn’t always easy, he says, but they filled the time with laughter.
When asked why he thinks sqilxw people seem to gravitate towards this kind of work, Wilson says, “It seems like we are able to take extreme conditions a lot better, like extreme cold, extreme heat, it’s just something that kicks in on the front line.”
Tough weather conditions weren’t the only challenge. Wilson says the OKIB members also had to deal with racism.
“There were hard conversations,” he says. “I remember talking to this big red-headed guy who thought Indians got everything, and so I explained to him our title and rights and how we didn’t surrender anything. And he said, ‘Aaah, give me a break.’ So I lost it on him at that point and said, ‘I’ll give you a break. Let’s go!’
“Hank stepped in,” he says, and “the guy realized that we weren’t going to back down.”
Over time things got better and working relationships improved, Wilson says.
“At the end of the day we made them realize we are human beings, too, just trying to raise a living like anyone else. So we changed their minds through our hard work.”
Cameron, the crew boss, was a “fitness buff,” Wilson recalls.
“He [was] always concerned about us pulling muscles, so he would put us through a lot of stretches and jumping jacks and stuff. Some of us didn’t mind — it woke me up — [but] that was really early in the morning. My cousin Phil and others would say, ‘What the hell we doing this for? Let’s get to work.’”
After that season in 1987, the company collapsed due to a number of factors, say Wilson and Cameron, but one factor was that OKIB workers decided there were some working conditions they didn’t agree with.
Wilson says he tried to convince the other OKIB members to stay, as they only had a couple of days left, but he couldn’t compel them.
“Some of our people don’t stand for that [type of work condition] and want justice,” he says. So they hitchhiked back to Kamloops from McBride where they were picked up by family members and taken back to OKIB.
The work done by the remaining crew members continued to be done quickly and effectively, says Wilson, despite having outdated equipment.
“Those trucks were antiques even then. They were old army trucks,” says Cameron.
Wilson says their process involved mixing napalm and then sometimes using a helicopter that would drip it over the cut block, cleared by logging, where it was then ignited on the ground.
“[We would mix] napalm, which is basically gelatin and jet fuel, so when you mix jet fuel, which is really cold, with gelatin it makes a jelly. So what we were doing was mixing the gelatin into the jet fuel in a 45-litre drum,” says Wilson.
“In that night picture where it’s burning you can actually see the drips of where the napalm is falling … We did the burns anytime the weather was in our favour, and so we did it in the night a lot of the time because that’s when the wind was in our favour,” Wilson says.
“Sometimes the fire got out of control on us so we had to be good at putting it out,” Wilson says.
“In the pictures, you’ll notice a skidder with a 500-gallon rectangular box on the back of it. We would mix a fire retardant, it was something like a soap, and if the fires did get out of hand, we would send [in] the cat,” he says.
“If the fire was in our favour, we would send a cat in and a skidder behind it,” he says.
“[Hank Cameron] would be our faller man who would fall trees back into the fire. Me, David, Dempsey and Phil would be running a fire hose out of the tank out of the back of the skidder, and of course we’d only have our pulaskis that dig out the roots, and dig out the hot spots.
“If we could, we would get helicopter support, too … The air support would go in first to cool things down and then we would go in and attack the hot spots.
“Hank would be up on the ridges and would judge wind direction by the clouds and we would communicate with walkie-talkies … If the wind was shifting he would order us to back off and we would move away from the fire and out of its direction.”
When you’re doing dangerous work like this, trust is key, he adds.
“We were in a lot of dangerous situations and Hank was our foreman, so we heavily relied on him during that time … We had a good boss, and did what we were told,” he says. “You need clear lines of command, and you can’t have any hesitation or confusion. You just need to trust in your leader.”
Lessons from the uncles also served Wilson and his fellow OKIB members well, he says.
“I never seen any quit from our people. … That was the motto that we were raised up in: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Our uncles would remind us of that growing up,” he shares.
Cameron says today’s crews aren’t built the same way, and maybe it’s time to connect more again with not only Indigenous people but with the rural communities that live in these wildfire zones.
“We have to reexamine how we’re dealing with fire. When you’re going somewhere, you should always be looking back, because that’s what you’re going to see when you’re on your way home,” he says.
“So if you took the wrong fork, then you should go back to where you were doing something different, and I think we can learn from the experience of this summer,” says Cameron.
Now, as Wilson lives through the wildfires and associated evacuations, he says his community will continue to do their best to remain “in high spirits.”
“My hope is that we can get our land back to a park-like state, and with climate change now, we need that,” he says, before adding a teaching passed on from his Elders.
“The land is ours for as long as we take care of it.”