Hello. I'm Jodene Blain, as you can see. I'm the band administrator for the Ashcroft Indian Band. I've also been the spokesperson throughout this whole fire. We are a small band in the interior of British Columbia. We have only 276 members.
I thought it was important for me to come because we offer a different perspective. We were the first and hardest hit first nation in B.C. The fire started on our plateau, so we had no chance. I know you've talked to other first nations. They had a chance to be proactive and did some amazing work. We had 30 minutes, from the time the fire started until it went through our community, to get people out. Half of our community was wiped out. We lost houses. We lost all our maintenance shops. Our maintenance manager had a shovel; that's all he had. Everything else was wiped out: our historical documents, our maps, our graveyard. All our hydro was just hanging. Septic tanks were just holes in the ground. I think it is important to give our perspective.
After the fire, the power was out in our community and in surrounding communities. Our cellphone tower burnt. I was a point of contact. I was on vacation at the time. I made a home base at the picnic table. I was the only person they could contact because the chief and council were out of cell service.
After that it was chaos. We were thrown into a pit of acronyms: EOC, ESS, EMBC. I'd never heard of any of those before. After failed attempts to open our EOC with no power, we finally got it up and running and we started the response process. I want to just highlight our experiences for this committee because it was chaos. Our members were scattered throughout all of B.C.
The first thing I want to point out is with regard to the Red Cross. I know the Red Cross has been here. We had no Red Cross presence in our community for weeks. We had to beg and plead and scream to get the Red Cross there. Our members needed to see the Red Cross as a sign that somebody cared. Because there was no Red Cross presence, because we had no power and were under an evacuation order, we had to create a makeshift office in my basement by my washer and dryer to print cheques to get money to our members. We were dealing with a population that has no ID, low literacy skills, and no email, so electronic transfers don't work. There was just obstacle after obstacle. Just how things work has to be looked at differently with regard to first nations communities. We can't just set up emails. People have never even had an email before.
ESS was also a nightmare. Our regional district, the TNRD, as Cathy would know, did not set up an ESS, so we were the only game in town. Our staff were thrown into dealing with the surrounding communities that were also completely wiped out: Loon Lake and Boston Flats. We quickly trained our staff. These were staff who also lost their homes so they were evacuated, but they worked, I think, 21 days in a row before I finally made them have a day off. We were servicing our first nation, as well as surrounding communities.
We kept begging and pleading for the regional district to send ESS people to help, to relieve us, but nobody came. We didn't want to turn anyone away. We knew what they had gone through. We were the only ones servicing all these other communities. You can imagine the toll of dealing with people who have just lost everything. They didn't know us. They weren't from our community, but we dealt with them. We begged the province, EMBC, to help as well, “Send us some people; send us some bodies.” That didn't happen. That was one of the biggest frustrations of this whole process.
Another one was wages. We all just started on the emergency right after the fire. We learned after the fact that our staff wages would not be covered. Base wages are not covered, only overtime. If we hire contractors to come in, their wages were 100% covered but ours weren't. If we had laid everybody off and then rehired them, they would have been covered, which is silly. We had no band office. We were under evacuation and we didn't even have a computer.
We're talking a substantial.... I mean, I think it was $60,000 to $70,000 after a few weeks of staff wages and overtime. The response we got from EMBC was to backfill, which sounds great in la-la land, but we were in chaos. How do you find another band administrator or finance person? You can't backfill. That was a huge learning curve. We're still trying to get the money back from INAC. They made big promises when they came to our reserve, but we still haven't seen a penny of that. That's a huge issue that we're still fighting for.
In terms of this, we've learned a lot. We want to share with other first nation communities what we've learned.
Number one is insurance. We increased our insurance every year. We thought we were insured really well. We weren't. When they came in and did the assessments, they assessed our homes very, very low, so the amount.... They came in at this level, to rebuild us up to a much higher level, so we're looking for the federal government to fill that gap. I would tell other first nations to look at that, make sure you know what's insured and how much it's insured for.
Also our emergency plan.... You have probably heard this throughout your sessions. We needed to have a living emergency plan. We had one on the shelf, like other first nation communities, that was collecting dust. Nobody knew where it was or what it looked like. We want to train our staff to be proactive and help other first nation communities when we deal with floods. Whether it's floods or fire, we want to make sure we're trained so we can help.
Right now we're in the rebuilding process, so we are looking at fire prevention measures when we rebuild, in terms of tin roofs, HardiePlank, and landscaping, because any house that had a little bit of lawn was spared. The fire kind of wove its way around. It's amazing how it chose what house to take.
We're also looking at irrigated agriculture fields on our plateau as part of a fire protection measure. I could basically write a book about what we learned this summer. I was sort of the main person and I was thrown into this position of being the face of our fire. But I just want to make sure that we're ready next time, that we're trained. We want to help other first nation communities, and any neighbouring communities, not just first nation, because when the next emergency hits.... We get flooding every year in our area, but also for the next fire. I'm just happy to contribute.
I welcome any questions or comments.