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20 Indigenous firefighters in N.S. train to battle wildfires

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As forest fires continue to burn throughout Canada, forcing evacuations from some First Nations communities, efforts are underway to train more Indigenous firefighters how to battle them.

This year, Natural Resources Canada provided funding in a two-year pilot project for training programs focusing on Indigenous communities.

Trainees and instructors during the Indigenous wildfire training in Debert last month.

Last month, Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, and the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center collaborated with Mi’kmaq communities throughout the province to deliver a new course on forest fire fighting.

Held at the Debert Hospitality Centre, 20 Mi’kmaw trainees spent four days learning during both in-class and hands-on field sessions.

“As a firefighter myself and an advanced care paramedic, I fully understand about the boots on the ground,” says Jennifer Jesty, the emergency resilience manager for the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq in Cape Breton.

When she heard about the course, she jumped at the chance to sign up enough participants to create an all-Indigenous class.

“Thinking about what's happened on the mainland, and that that is a real possibility to happen in Cape Breton, I thought it pretty important to see if we could finally expand the training into our Indigenous fire departments about wildland fire fighting,” she says.

Bill Stevens, a 30-year veteran volunteer member of the fire department on Eskasoni First Nation, took the course alongside his son, a fellow firefighter.

“I learned more with this training, what you've got to look for after a big forest fire,” he says.

The lesson that stuck with him the most? How to dig out hot spots after a forest fire, which often burns so hot, tree roots buried deep in the soil keep burning long after the surface flames are out.

“You have to use tools to look for burn inside the roots and inside the ground,” he explains, “you have to dig them out and make sure everything's out because there's still fire underneath.”

Scott Tingley, forest protection manager with the province’s Department of Natural Resource and Renewables, says it’s all part of efforts to train 1,000 community firefighters across the country.

“It incorporates all the safety information they need to know when they're out on that front line, (and) some the basic science about how fires behave,” he explains, “and then how to use the basic equipment and the basic techniques.”

“It’s very comprehensive,” he says.

Tingley adds the course almost didn’t happen, because of the number of wildfires in Nova Scotia earlier this year, including the devastating fires in both the Halifax and Shelburne County areas, which destroyed homes and forced thousands of people to flee.

But he says it all came together in the end, and says the participants received their certification with a “higher than average score.”

Nova Scotia is one of the first provinces to deliver the new course, which he says will not only prepare Indigenous firefighters for wildfires in their own communities, but across the country if needed.

“It improves the ability to mobilize these crews nationally and that's the whole idea of trying to increase capacity across the country,” Tingley says.

For Jesty, the course has been a key piece in making sure First Nations - like all communities - are ready for any natural disaster.

“There's no such thing as too much training,” she says.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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