First Nation communities across the province welcomed evacuees from Fort McMurray after a fire decimated the town on Tuesday and Wednesday May 3 and 4. More than 88,000 residents fled their homes as the fire raged through the Northern Alberta town closest to the oil sands. Now First Nations communities are working to locate their own members, provide resources to evacuees unable to move south, and begin the long path to recovery.
As of Friday May 6, 25,000 evacuees remained in work camps normally home to oil sands workers. And 1,500 cars, including some whose drivers had been stuck along the highway north of Fort McMurray, had started moving south. While many evacuees will head to Edmonton, First Nations communities are prepared to welcome those looking for food and rest along the way.
“Our hearts go out to everyone, and we hope any help we can give makes life a bit better,” said Judy Bugle-Soosay in Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, 186 miles south of Fort McMurray.
As the highway south finally opened on Friday morning, Bugle-Soosay said the Beaver Lake Cree had been advised to expect from 200 to 2,000 people to pass through the area. And they were prepared.
Local companies, grocery stores and individual donors gave water, pet food and supplies to the Beaver Lake Cree. The community was ready to house people in a nearby campsite, and community facilities were available and open with food, water and clothing.
Fort McKay, 33 miles north of Fort McMurray, was one of the first to welcome evacuees. Chief Jim Boucher estimated that 5,000 people had passed through the community that is normally home to just 700. But exact numbers were difficult to pinpoint.
“Things are changing daily,” said Fort McKay communications director Rose Mueller. “People are just moving.”
Some First Nations had moved in and out of states of evacuation. The Alexis Nakota Sioux were evacuated Wednesday due to fire on the reserve. The surrounding county of Lac Ste. Anne was under an evacuation order, though that was lifted on Wednesday night May 4, and residents were able to return home. The 700 residents of Fort McMurray First Nation No. 468 remained evacuated.
As First Nations communities across Alberta’s north welcomed the evacuees, they also were attempting to locate all of their own members.
“We’re trying to figure out where everyone is,” said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille, adding that evacuees have ended up scattered throughout communities and oil sands work camps across the north. As the fire spread south it cut off the highway to Edmonton, Alberta’s capital. And, Courtoreille said, people were given different orders as new information arrived, which spread evacuees north and west as the fire moved across highways and cut transportation routes.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation declared a state of emergency on Tuesday May 3 and said it will continue to operate in that state until all of its members are able to return home.
“All members have been accounted for,” said Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam. “But we want to get them home.”
He said the priority was getting First Nation members home who may have been in Fort McMurray for medical or school trips. More than 200 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, the community was not at risk, but many members live and work in the city and surrounding area. The ACFN sent boats to Fort McKay to pick up evacuees and First Nation members to bring them home. Adam estimated that 70 people had entered the community since Tuesday May 3.
But both Courtoreille and Adam emphasized that so much is still not known about where people have ended up. The provincial government is encouraging people to register with Red Cross to ensure they’re accounted for, and First Nations communities want people to check in with family members.
Courtoreille said is some concern about how supplies will hold up. Both the Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay communities are in remote areas. Rose Mueller at Fort McKay said supplies are good in the community with many donations flooding in. Fort McKay First Nation has a logistics site in Edmonton collecting donations, which are regularly transported to the community.
A spokesperson for Alberta’s Minister of Indigenous Relations said there is no immediate concern of food shortages.
“The provincial operations center will work with the community to ensure supplies and financial supports are in place,” said Brent Wittier with the ministry.
Fort McKay has set up a donation collection point in Edmonton that transports supplies regularly to the community. The minister and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley have personally reached out to chiefs and elders in affected areas, as well.
Moving forward, Courtoreille said he is concerned about housing and transition. The housing supports and recovery after the Slave Lake fire five years ago took years, he noted. Courtoreille said he does not want First Nations to be caught in a jurisdictional battle over responsibility for recovery.
Currently the wildfire continues to move south and has affected more than 100,000 hectares—247,000 acres, or 386 square miles. As of Friday afternoon on May 6, Fort McMurray remained under Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) supervision, and residents were not allowed to return to the area. The provincial government has said it will be days before it will be safe enough to assess the damage.
“Today, I speak for all Canadians when I say that our hearts go out to the families affected by this terrible fire,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement. “We are thinking of—and praying for—the people of Fort McMurray. Though Alberta’s loss is profound, we will get through this tragedy together: as friends, as neighbors, as Canadians.”