The drone of helicopters, plumes of smoke as grand as mountains, flames racing, like children, in ditches. And in the wildfire’s shadow was Joe Alphonse, Chief of the Tletinqoxtin First Nation’s Anaham (Tl’etinqox) Band, in a cowboy hat, telling a cameraman what he said to the men who became known as the Wildfire Warriors.
“You guys go out and you fight that fire, you’re protecting your community. You’re protecting our women, our children and our elders. That’s what warriors do. That’s the definition of a warrior,” Alphonse says, pointing to the forest and fields where his people have lived—and fought fires—for generations. “So let’s get the warrior out of you guys, and get to those fires and fight them. Be warriors again.”
Six months later, at a ceremony held to acknowledge those warriors and the community, Tom Hoffman, Manager, External and Stakeholder Relations, and Ann Nielsen, Area Supervisor, Cariboo Woodlands, heard Alphonse tell guests how proud he was of those Wildfire Warriors, who defied government evacuation orders to protect homes and use firefighting skills honed over centuries, and how thankful he was for the actions of Tolko.
On July 7, a wildfire broke out 5 kilometres east of the Anaham Band. The winds changed twice, sending the flames back west toward their reserve in the heart of the Cariboo region. Within minutes, Hoffman was dialing Alphonse, and left a message: “We’re going to send out a cat and an operator to build a fireguard. You just let us know where.”
The cat operator stayed two weeks, and in that time built three fireguards on ridges, creek edges and along the highway, while warriors burned back grass between the fireguards.
“When that fire took a run at us, the hoses were all lined up and it was like going to war,” says Alphonse, in an interview after the ceremony. “The fire didn’t have a chance.”
In the face of a fire that had jumped the river four times and threatened to swallow homes, Alphonse says one fireguard was worth 100 firefighters.
“We would have never recovered. Instead, we didn’t lose anything. No lives, no property, no injuries. The fireguard was such a big part of our fight. Without it, we maybe would have lost some of our community. It was that significant for us.”
Alphonse recalls the 15-16-hour days the operator put in, driving back and forth from Williams Lake with just a thermos and a sandwich.
“Those were the real warriors, that operator and the firefighters who were out there all day, day after day.”
“They didn’t ask,” says Alphonse, of Hoffman’s gesture. “Tolko just came. Those are the partnerships that mean something.”
Through Tsi Del Del —a joint venture between Tolko and the Alexis Creek Indian Band, Tolko purchases logs from the Anaham Band and hires their equipment and people. Tolko and Anaham have had a relationship for years.
Later that first July day, Ann Nielsen, drove to the Reserve in her truck, the box stuffed with shovels, axes and fire pumps to donate.
“The fire came right up to their community. They’d decided to stay, and they were really at nature’s mercy.”
The warriors used the tools and the operator had his eye one keeping the flames at bay from homes already standing and those that would soon be built. People came from across the province and Alberta to help fight the fires and feed residents and firefighters.
Nearly 200 people attended the January Wildfire Warrior Ceremony, where Alphonse and his community had a chance to thank all those who helped to keep his people and their homes safe. Nielsen and Hoffman both attended the event, and were thanked by name.
“We felt honoured to represent Tolko and accept his kind words for what we had done,” says Hoffman.