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Wildfire evacuations have unique impacts on Indigenous communities: study

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When wildfires spread they can have devastating impacts — forcing people to leave their homes and belongings — and new research says the effects may be even greater for Indigenous communities.

The study, published in the February 2019 volume of the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, looks at how members of the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation in northwestern Ontario — where over 1,000 people were living — responded to a mandatory wildfire evacuation in June 2011.

The fire was about 300 square kilometres in size and 15 kilometres away when a mandatory evacuation was called for the First Nation. Residents were relocated over three days to the communities of Sioux Lookout, located 230 kilometres away, Ignace, 236 kilometres away, and Geraldton, 763 kilometres away.

Lead author Tara McGee, who’s a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, interviewed 28 residents about their evacuation experiences, many of whom said they did not want to leave the community.

“Evacuees were worried about their house pets and their possessions, some felt quite homesick over the evacuation period,” she said.

“There was also a strong desire of people to want to stay home within [Mishkeegogamang] and within the traditional territory to be able to carry out their usual activities.”

Tara McGee is a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. (Submitted by Tara McGee)

The study found that for Indigenous people, attachments to place may be stronger and the freedom to carry out activities like hunting and fishing may be more important.

The desire to retain control may also be stronger for Indigenous people, the study said, due in part to the colonial legacy of government programs in Canada.

“Within an evacuation, often it’s RCMP who would go to the door to tell people to leave, so one of the residents essentially said that that seemed like it would be similar to the residential school experience,” said McGee.   

There were a number of other negative impacts on evacuees, McGee said, including extended families being split up while others were crowded in hotel rooms. McGee said this was especially stressful as families in the Indigenous community play a key role in providing social support.

“Some people also found that a few individuals in the three communities where evacuees were sent made racist comments that made them feel unwelcome,” she added. 

Because the power went out in the First Nation, McGee said many residents also lost food that was being stored in refrigerators and freezers,

“For people in northern communities, that takes a lot of time and money to replace that lost food.”

Indigenous communities are at high risk for wildfires in Canada. A recent analysis by the Canadian Forest Service indicates that 60 per cent of First Nation reserves in Canada are located within or intersect with wildland and urban development — high risk areas for wildfire. Research also suggests that the number of wildfires will increase over the next decade.

Indigenous Canadians are also disproportionately affected by respiratory diseases, including asthma, which are exacerbated by wildfire smoke.

Taking a different approach

McGee said when it comes to the evacuation of Indigenous communities, a different approach should be taken. She recommends that emergency managers consider ways to allow people to stay with their traditional territory when possible or relocate them to nearby Indigenous communities that can provide culturally appropriate accommodations and support.

That’s something the Northwest Territories government said it prioritizes when it comes to emergency planning.

Ivan Russell, manager of emergency measures with the territorial government,  said during evacuations they try and keep people within familiar cultural surroundings.

“Our protocol really for community evacuations is to try to keep [people] within their own region,” he said. “So if we have to evacuate a community we’ll try to evacuate them to the regional centre which is very familiar culturally, as well they share a lot of family ties.”  

Russell noted they consider other factors like the risk to communities and the ability of host communities to provide supports to evacuees.

In the past five years there have been 11 partial or full evacuations of communities in the Northwest Territories and four of remote cabin areas.

The territory updated its emergency plan in December 2018, which includes evacuation guidelines. It states that communities are responsible for developing and implementing emergency plans, including evacuation plans and the territorial government will provide assistance as needed.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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