Sts’ailes feel burn of Wood Lake Wildfire

"It's a big, big loss for us" says Sts'ailes member who gathers materials and medicine in those woods

The Wood Lake wildfire, burning since August 2, has decimated an estimated 13.7 square kilometres of forest so far. While crews continue to battle the blaze by ground and air attack, members of the Sts’ailes band watch and wait, hoping the damage will be less than what they fear.

The loss of more than 13 square kilometres to a wildfire is devastating to the First Nations people who have walked these grounds for centuries. The Sts’ailes band, an independent First Nations group living near the Harrison River, has roots that extend back hundreds of years, with ancestral village and ceremonial sites located all around Harrison Lake.

Band Council member Boyd Peters, aboriginal rights and title manager, says the region has significant cultural ties, with multiple ancestral village sites as well as daily use by members for plant gathering, hunting, fishing and ceremonial purposes.

Monica Joe (Leon) knows first-hand the importance of the area caught in wildfire. Stepsum, known as 20 Mile Bay to most, is a destination for a gathering of Sts’ailes every year.

“A lot of our people would go up there, spend the day, do all kinds of activities,” shares Joe. “We take some of the younger youth to gather medicine, teach them how to gather materials for weaving.”

The elders take multiple trips to the Stepsum area each summer, shares Joe.

“We gather all our materials for our basket weaving and our medicines.”

They seek out the Cedar, wild cherry and other trees for medicine and basket weaving materials.

“They’re all burnt now,” says Joe. “It’s a big, big loss for us.”

The elders had gone up a few times this season, but some, including Joe, had not gathered all they needed yet for this year’s weaving projects and had planned to return again. That appears to no longer be possible.

“We were so devastated when we heard about the fire in that area,” she reflects. “We’re going to have to find a different area to gather our materials.”

The Sts’ailes band wrote a letter to the BC Wildfire Service Wednesday, August 5, highlighting their concerns regarding the wildfire.

“This disastrous and entirely preventable fire is a natural consequence of largely unregulated recreational activities around Harrison Lake,” the letter states. “Even recreation sites, which are important cultural and historic places within our territory, are routinely vandalized and left full of trash.”

They reference three known archeological village sites in the area under wildfire threat, including Stepsum (20 Mile Bay), Quqwathem (10 Mile Bay) and Kwótxwem (Eagle Falls).

“Sts’ailes people have been living off this land being impacted by the fire since time-immemorial [. . .] and have the right and obligation to continue protecting the natural and cultural resources central to our cultural traditions,” the letter goes on to say.

As the wildfire continues to burn, Peters says the Sts’ailes Council hopes they can get a closer look with a flyover of the fire to see risks and damages. For the Sts’ailes people, the hope is that this disaster will result in greater co-operation between the Sts’ailes people and the government in the future.

Peters says thankfully, the winds have worked in favour of the Sts’ailes community of approximately 1,000 people and there is no immediate threat to the village.

However, there is a threat to future economic ventures. The Sts’ailes Development Corporation, tasked with economic development and business plans for the community, reports they had no forestry lots in immediate danger from the fire. But Jeremy Boyd, forestry operations for Sts’ailes Development Corporation, says it does impact the possibility of future forestry projects. He adds that the run-of-the river project they are involved in is also not in the wildfire zone right now though it had the potential to if the fire kept growing at its early pace.