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‘Human compassion’: Albertans lend a helping hand to wildfire evacuees

‘When you have to leave your home, a lot of times you are not able to grab the things you need’
Wildfire evacuees get supplies and get checked in at the evacuation centre in Edmonton, Sunday, May 7, 2023. Many Albertans are pitching in to help the thousands of people who have been displaced by wildfires in recent weeks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Woodland Cree Elder Leonard Cardinal, his wife and their son prepared more than 100 bagged lunches earlier this week and delivered them to evacuees from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, a northwestern Alberta community hit hard by one of the dozens of wildfires burning across the province.

They also travelled from Grande Prairie with a trailer full of clothing and other items to High Level, some 450 kilometres north, where some evacuees from Fox Lake and Rainbow Lake have been staying.

“I think it’s just the human compassion that we have and empathy for other people to do things to help as much as we can,” said Cardinal, with Thunderbird Inc., a consultancy that offers land-based teachings and workshops.

“When you have to leave your home, a lot of times you are not able to grab the things you need.”

Cardinal’s family are among many Albertans pitching in to help the thousands of people who have been displaced by wildfires in recent weeks.

Jena Clarke, director of community services for the town of High Level, said the town, Little Red River Cree Nation and the province have been offering support. That includes opening an evacuation centre and donation centre and offering mental and public health services and recreation activities for children.

Clarke said Canadian National Railway Co. flew donations up from Edmonton and many organizations and businesses in High Level have been supportive.

“A lot of these people just left with like a backpack full of stuff, so really they need everything,” she said.

A provincial state of emergency remained in effect on Friday night as 78 active wildfires burned across Alberta, 22 of which were out of control. Colin Blair, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Organization, said there 10 evacuation orders, 19 declared states of local emergency, and four band council resolutions remained in place.

“We remain in an extremely volatile situation, and the risk of new wildfires remained significant in much of the province,” he said. “Hot and dry conditions are expected to continue over the weekend and into next week.”

While some people have been able to return to their homes, many others remain under evacuation orders. Blair said there were an estimated 16,500 evacuees as of Friday afternoon.

The Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation announced Tuesday that net proceeds from the Oilers playoffs 50/50 raffle until the end of the second round would go to a Canadian Red Cross fund to support communities affected by wildfires.

The Yukon government also donated $25,000 to that fund, while the Alberta and federal governments have both pledged to match all donations.

Among those still displaced are members of the Little Red River Cree Nation community of Fox Lake, where more than 100 structures have been destroyed by fire including homes, the RCMP detachment and a store.

Online apparel company Kiwetin Clothing, based in the nearby community of John D’Or Prairie, is selling “Fox Lake Strong” hats, T-shirts, hoodies and stickers, with proceeds going to support those displaced from Fox Lake.

“At Kiwetin Clothing, we understand this won’t replace the memories and buildings that were lost due to this wildfire, but were hoping this will alleviate this burden,” says its website.

“Our Fox Lake Strong design represents the strength and resiliency that we feel best represents Fox Lake. The fox in the design is guarding and protecting its home. It’s waiting to pass down its wisdom and teachings to the next generation. Fox Lake will rebuild and will be stronger.”

The Mountain View Moccasin House charity is also collecting funds and donations for Fox Lake residents.

Co-Chair Debbie Collins said many people have family and friends in Fox Lake.

“(It) makes your heart hurt to think about all those families,” she said. “We’re just praying for people and we know it’s going to be a hard go and it’s going to take a long time.”

Other communities that remain under evacuation orders include Drayton Valley and parts of Brazeau County, Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, O’Chiese First Nation and Whitefish Lake First Nation.

Calgary and Edmonton have both opened reception centres and are providing temporary lodging and other services for evacuees.

The City of St. Albert just northwest of Edmonton has set up a temporary permitting system to allow evacuees staying in RVs and trailers to continuously park them outside of their friends’ and family’s homes until May 31, suspending the 24-hour maximum under its bylaws.

Evacuees are also staying in John D’Or Prairie, Fort Vermillion, La Crete and Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press

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