‘Tight-Knit’ Communities Rally to Help Grateful Fire Evacuees in Northern BC, Alberta, Manitoba

‘Tight-Knit’ Communities Rally to Help Grateful Fire Evacuees in Northern BC, Alberta, Manitoba
Fort Nelson, B.C., evacuees at the North Peace Arena in Fort St. John, B.C., on May 13, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Jesse Boily)
Doug Lett

Kelleen Blouin was away visiting relatives when residents of her northwestern Manitoba hometown of Cranberry Portage was forced to evacuate because of an approaching out-of-control wildfire on May 11.

Over 500 people were forced to flee the region, some 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, with almost no time to prepare or pack.

“We started hearing about the evacuation about 7:30 p.m.,” she told The Epoch Times on May 14. “So it was just a nightmare for probably eight hours. And then we ended up going to bed and not knowing if we were going to wake up to our house being burned down, or what.”

She’s not alone. Over 5,000 people have been evacuated in regions of northern Manitoba and northern British Columbia because of approaching wildfires, and now more people are being asked to evacuate in Alberta.

On May 14, a two-hour evacuation notice was issued affecting several thousand people in part of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta.

Ms. Blouin said her home is on the edge of Cranberry Portage, so if the fire got that far it would be among the first to go. She said the uncertainty is difficult because evacuees don’t know when they’ll be able to go home—or what they’ll come back to.

“I think most people were out in 40 minutes because the skies turned black so fast,” she said. “The only thing I wanted was my pictures. … I just want my photos, my little baby albums of my children. Everything else can be replaced, but you can’t replace those.”

A wildfire near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta has prompted an evacuation order. (Courtesy of Alberta Wildfire)
A wildfire near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta has prompted an evacuation order. (Courtesy of Alberta Wildfire)

According to the emergency coordinator for the Regional Municipality of Kelsey, near The Pas, Manitoba, hundreds of people are affected.

“Some people came with the clothes on their backs. Same with the children,” Lori Forbes told The Epoch Times from The Pas, where she was coordinating efforts to care for the hundreds of evacuees.

Many didn’t have time to grab a charger for their phones, she said. “It was like, ‘We’ve got to go now.’”

Everyone is worried, she said.

“Not knowing,” she said. “We can’t go in there and look. I can tell someone all they want that their house is still standing at this moment. [But] I don’t know what tomorrow will bring or what the winds may bring,” she said. “The fire is still very dangerous.”

She said volunteers and various agencies are doing all they can to keep those evacuated comfortable.

“We have some entertainment for children set up today,” said Ms. Forbes. “Local organizations providing food, ... we have some mental health counselling available if required. We’re trying to cover all of our bases.”

Three provinces away in northeastern B.C., Ian Langstaff has done everything he can to prepare his property for the Parker Lake wildfire, which forced the evacuation of Fort Nelson on the evening of May 10.

While people have been told to leave the area, Mr. Langstaff, who lives just outside of Fort Nelson, is one of a small number who have chosen to stay.

“We’ve packed up the things that mean the most to us,” Mr. Langstaff told The Epoch Times on May 13. “We’re ready to leave when we have to leave.”

In the meantime, they’ve been doing everything they can to minimize damage to their home and property if the fire gets that far.

“We’ve demolished our yard, we’ve torn down trees, we’ve torn the landscaping apart to try to make a barrier,” he said. They’ve also been rotating a sprinkler around their house since the fire took off on May 11.

“Little things that you can do, moving all combustible sources away,” he said.

According to Rob Fraser, mayor of Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which includes Fort Nelson, the fire was first noticed on the afternoon of May 10. Within a few hours, he had to order an evacuation.

“This fire hit so close, so fast, that there was no notice,” he told The Epoch Times. More positively, the evacuation of some 3,700 people went smoothly.

“The people were amazing with respect to how orderly they were,” he said. There were long lineups to leave the community, “but people would stop and let the side traffic in, and it’s just an example of how your citizens can be responsible and deal with these things on their own. We had no traffic control out there,” he said.

Mr. Fraser said the local hospital was evacuated within hours. “It was just after midnight when the last patient was out of the hospital.”

Fort Nelson is in an isolated area in northeast B.C.—almost 1,600 kilometres north of Vancouver—so most of the evacuees had to travel long distances to find shelter.

“You put 3,500 people immediately on a highway and move them 400 kilometres down the road,” he said. “It’s an amazing feat that it went without any injuries.”

Just like in northern Manitoba, Mr. Fraser said evacuees are stuck waiting, not knowing what will happen.

“People are very concerned about their homes, about the community that some of them were born and raised in. ... They’re apprehensive,” he said.

The municipality is trying to put out as much information as possible, he said. “If they know what’s happening, I think that helps them to feel a little bit more comfortable.”

The displaced can face problems even if the fire doesn’t reach their homes. Cranberry Portage, for example, is experiencing power outages.

“We don’t have power still,” said Ms. Blouin on May 14. “So, I’m worried about all of the food.”

Just outside of Fort Nelson, Mr. Langstaff was preparing for the worst while also finding time to help some of those who were evacuating.

“Today alone, I’ve fixed four vehicles for various things for people that were trying to evacuate. And I’ve done various fittings for the guys that are hauling water,” he said. “We’re a tight-knit community of a lot of hard-working, blue-collar people.”

Mr. Fraser said he always hoped he would never have to sign his name to an evacuation order.

“But if you have to, you’ve got all the right people there to help you make that decision.”

Doug Lett is a former news manager with both Global News and CTV, and has held a variety of other positions in the news industry.
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