Are you prepared? How to keep your family safe from flooding, forest fires and more

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ForestFireAre you and your family ready for when disaster strikes? Do you have an emergency plan and kits ready? What if the roads into your community are closed? Would you have enough supplies in your home to last until they reopen?

Whether it’s a flood or a forest fire, Eeyou Istchee’s communities can sometimes be subject to evacuations or declared states of emergency.

While all the Cree communities already have emergency plans in place, each family needs to make sure it has what it needs in case disaster strikes.

Jason Coonishish has been the Coordinator of Pre-hospital and Emergency Measures Planning at the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) since the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009. Since then he has seen several evacuations small and large.

With the forest-fire season is looming, Coonishish says now is a good time to stockpile necessary essentials. There are other scenarios that could see communities partially evacuated. These include the threat of excessive smoke and damage from forest fires, power failures, water shortages, road closures due to floods and landslides, and heavy winds.

On the Ontario side of Cree territory, there have just been major evacuations of entire communities – Kashechewan and Attawapiskat – due to major flooding. But there doesn’t need to be a large-scale disaster for people to be evacuated.

Even a low water level can lead to patients being evacuated, as in Chisasibi where there are patients receiving dialysis.

“We have nine dialysis machines in Chisasibi and that means we treat nine people at a time, with two sessions per day. When we have a water shortage due to a freeze-up, sometimes the water level will drop really low and this can affect those on dialysis. When this happens we have to move them out really quickly,” said Coonishish.

This happened a few years ago, and 18 patients and their escorts had to be sent to Montreal.

But, the most common reason for an evacuation of a community in Eeyou Istchee is fire, most recently last summer in Eastmain where over 350 people had to be flown out.

“We already have lists established in each community for who is most vulnerable,” he explained. “It goes by phase 1, phase 2 and then a phase 3, the rest of the community. Everyone who is sick is evacuated out with an escort and that is why in Eastmain it was over 350 because of all of the escorts. Last year, we only got up to phase 2 of the evacuation plans but we did not have to get up to phase 3 because the wind changed direction and this helped us a lot.”

Those on the phase 1 list for an evacuation are all long-term chronic-care patients and this includes Elders and those in Elders homes, those suffering from repertory illnesses like asthma and pulmonary fibrosis, cardiac patients, infants (newborns aged one month and under) along with their complete families, prenatal patients (women over 36 weeks along) with an escort and those with high-risk pregnancies, the handicapped, mental-health clients and pre-hemodialysis and dialysis patients as well as special-needs children.

Phase 2 evacuees include all prenatal patients (who are 35 weeks or less), the rest of the infants (who are 12 months or less) and their families and all Elders who are over 65 but without health conditions.

The phase 3 includes everyone else.

Once an emergency is declared however, it is up to the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs to handle a full-scale evacuation, as it has done for the two Ontario communities this May. Aboriginal Affairs provides plans and procedures for a full-scale evacuation and foots the bill.
According to Coonishish, with summer right around the corner, now is a good time to examine emergency packs to make sure that they all include weather-appropriate clothing and checking the expiry dates on the non-perishable food items.

For those who are sick or on a higher vulnerability list, checking what you would need for your care is very important.

“What we tell people who are vulnerable is to pack their medication, make sure that they have their health card, toiletries, clothing to last a few days, chargers for cellphones and follow the instructions from the First Nations Emergency Department,” said Coonishish.

Everyone in the communities should at all times have everything necessary to create a complete 72-hour emergency preparedness kit to ensure the health and safety of their family in the event of a disaster.

According to the federal government’s Get Prepared website (, every 72-hour preparedness kit should include the following:

1) Two litres of water per person per day (include small bottles that can be carried easily in case of an evacuation order);

2) Food that won’t spoil, such as canned food, energy bars and dried foods (remember to replace the food and water once a year);

3) Manual can opener;

4) Flashlight and batteries;

5) Battery-powered or wind-up radio;

6) Extra batteries;

7) First aid kit;

8) Prescription medications, infant formula or equipment for people with disabilities;

9) Extra keys for your car and house:

10) Smaller bills, such as $10 bills and change for payphones;

11) An emergency plan that includes all your in-town and out-of-town contact information.

Coonishish said residents need to have in their homes enough supplies to sustain their families for two weeks at all times. Last summer’s crisis saw the closure of several restaurants and gasoline shortages.

For more about what to do in the event of a forest fire:

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