It was authentic, anticipated and appreciated.
The Sts’ailes people and provincial wildfire crews gathered together last week to meet, to share a meal and, by the end, to share a bond. The school gym was filled with about 150 firefighters from across the province as well as a 24-person crew from South Africa. They were invited by Sts’ailes band as a thank you for their hard work to protect the traditional lands of the Sts’ailes people in the Wood Lake wildfire.
“We really, really appreciate the work you have been doing,” Chief Harvey Paul said to the firefighters. “We thank the firefighters for coming out and protecting our land and our homes.”
Mitch Pence, incident commander for the Wood Lake wildfire, said he was proud of all the firefighters who all put in 110 per cent. He thanked the Sts’ailes band for the opportunity to gather together and share a meal. Before the speeches, while digging into his salmon dinner, Pence said for a community to host a dinner for fire crews is not something he has encountered very often.
“This is pretty special,” he commented.
Other firefighters certainly agreed. Pierce Fifieild is a wildfire fighter out of Terrace. He’s been on a provincial crew for the past five years. He says every summer gets so busy, these kinds of things don’t happen.
“It really boosts morale, and shows how much they really care,” Fifield says.
For the Sts’ailes people, gathering to share a meal in celebration is common. What is uncommon this year is the lack of salmon. Band councillor and cultural manager Kelsey Charlie (Tixweltel) says usually right now, they would be in the middle of salmon catching season. But the same day as the dinner, the whole Fraser River was shut down for sockeye salmon fishing.
“We’d normally be fishing almost three to four days a week, but they closed it right down because of conservation,” says Charlie. “We’re OK with that, being that we’re stewards of the land. We want to make sure it’s there for generations to come.”
But it means the salmon they shared wasn’t just any meal. It was the best, and the most precious, they could offer.
“That salmon is like gold,” says Charlie. “That’s our soul food.”
After dinner, each crew was presented with certificates of thanks and a small gift on behalf of the Sts’ailes people. Pence was presented with a drum to bring back to the provincial fire headquarters as thanks for their work and he presented Chief Paul with a gift on behalf of the provincial fire service.
Julia English, Apex crew boss out of Nelson, told the crowd when they received their certificates that they very much appreciated the recognition.
“We get complacent up there, [when we] don’t know who we’re working for. Thank you,” she said.
When the South African crew came up to receive their certificates, they were asked if they would perform a song from their homeland. They summoned up the energy after a full day of working on the fire, and what took place next was something magical. They performed a riveting, a capella song and dance routine, then gestured for the assembled guests to join in. If you know anyone from Nelson, you probably won’t be surprised that they leapt up first. But soon after, dozens of firefighters from all across the province were up and in a circle, dancing and singing and celebrating together. The room was united in song and dance, and for a moment, there was no fire, and no different nations or peoples. Just joy filled men and women, smelling of fire, their bellies full of salmon, joined as one.
The Sts’ailes band also shared a song, with a traditional drum and dance. As firefighters left the gym after the last song, it was obvious they were tired but content. A bushy-bearded B.C. firefighter high-fived a South African crew member as they got to their trucks. Small clusters of firefighters walked together, reminiscing about the evening. And they all headed back to their work camp down the road, ready to face the Wood Lake Wildfire another day.
Edited Aug. 20 to reflect typo. Chief Paul was presented with a gift on behalf of the provincial fire service.