Nearly three years after a Manitoba Conservation investigation concluded that a forest fire near Grand Rapids was caused by a student in the Brandon School Division’s former Eco Odyssey program, division officials have quietly apologized to the community.
In May 2008, a fire broke out in an area about 40 kilometres north of Grand Rapids, dubbed the “Norris Lake/Grand Rapids Fire.” The blaze burned through at least 43,000 hectares of land, including valuable timberland.
The cost of bringing the substantial fire under control was in excess of $4.5 million.
It was during this time that BSD’s Eco Odyssey caving expedition was taking place. The provincial department concluded the fire was most likely sparked by an Eco Odyssey student who burned toilet paper after using it, as directed by program teacher David Barnes.
While Barnes had defiantly contradicted the findings of Manitoba Conservation, stating that he didn’t believe any of his group caused the fire, the school division terminated the program.
Thankfully, as it felt there was no malice on the part of the Eco Odyssey student, the province did not proceed with charges against the student, and Manitoba Conservation decided not to come after the division for financial compensation either.
But as a result of the massive blaze, whole forests were destroyed, animals lost and as the Sun reported on Saturday, the trapline for the Misipawistik Cree Nation — a community that depends on hunting for subsistence — is still greatly affected.
“They’ve lost a lot of the animals that would be in that area,” Brandon School Division trustee Jim Murray told the Sun. “Two of their primary trapping animals — the martin and the fisher — are very, very scarce there now, as are the moose and that sort of thing, because obviously there’s not much for them to eat in the area.”
The province estimates it will take between 30 and 50 years for the area to reforest to the way it was.
As an act of reconciliation, division officials met with representatives of Manitoba Conservation, the Grand Rapids Trappers Association and the Misipawistik Cree Nation near the scene of the fire last Wednesday.
Murray said the officials expressed the division’s regret “for the loss and for the hardship” that the fire caused. And division chair Mark Sefton said it was important for the officials to get together and talk about the loss the community experienced, to figure out ways to “move forward from here.”
As part of the reconciliation process, Murray said the division intends to have future meetings with the trappers association and the First Nation.
While we wonder at the length of time it took to meet with affected parties, we commend the division for accepting responsibility for the situation and apologizing directly. We also have a suggestion for our trustees — use this sad situation as a learning tool.
Currently, the division no longer offers a program like Eco Odyssey, which, in spite of everything, is a shame. In previous years, the program received numerous accolades for its innovative approach to education. There is a chance here to resurrect the spirit of the program, and to turn a negative into a positive, so to speak.
There will always be a need to educate students about ecology, and the dangers that our environment faces from loss of habitat, deforestation, pollution and natural and — yes — man-made disasters. Instead of shying away from this reality, we suggest our trustees embrace it.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 1, 2012