Northern Alberta Métis settlement frustrated with level of government support for wildfire threat
An official with a northern Alberta Métis settlement says his community is being left behind by the province when it comes to support and services in the region.
As many as 15 homes were lost on Thursday by the Chuckegg Creek wildfire, which doubled in size overnight Wednesday and has prompted the evacuations of several communities, including Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement.
Along with the homes lost, 80 more are at high risk, according to Blake Desjarlais, director of public and national affairs with the Métis Settlements General Council.
“It is right in the line of those 80 houses,” Desjarlais said.
He told Global News the fire destroyed the homes which were in the northeast corner of the settlement — about five kilometres from the townsite — and said the fire is moving southeast toward the homes.
Watch below: Officials from multiple agencies discuss reports of possible property damage in Paddle Prairie due to wildfire.
Desjarlais said that at a meeting with provincial ministers on Thursday afternoon, the council asked that the government start fighting the fire on the western side to protect the evacuated community, but was told that crews were focusing on the south and eastern fronts.
“It doesn’t sound like they’re ready to do much for the Paddle Prairie, or anyone in the north for that matter,” he said.
Desjarlais said the community was completely evacuated with the exception of about three people who have stayed behind to man the water stations to provide pressurized water to the fire crews in the area.
“They’re devastated,” he said. “They literally… [were] saying the road is melting. They mentioned the smoke is probably one of the worst aspects of this because it’s making it difficult to see where they’re going, but also to see where the fire is going.”
Watch below: Global News coverage of wildfires burning in northern Alberta.
The losses go beyond the homes in Paddle Prairie, as much of the Indigenous community relies on the land for their livelihood.
“We’ve lost trap lines, they’re a strong economic driver for us,” Desjarlais said. “Most of the regional farmers have had to cut animals loose.”
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Desjarlais said some also had to leave animals and livestock trapped in the townsite because they didn’t have time to round them up or set them free before fleeing themselves.
In addition to leaving their homes and animals behind, Dejarlais said a whole layer of complications has emerged with the evacuation, namely that the government didn’t and isn’t helping the evacuees.
“The biggest issue [is] that Grande Prairie said they can’t take any more evacuees,” he said. “We went looking for other routes, but government doesn’t know where to send them.”
Dejarlais said there are also issues with identifying and registering the evacuees, because many left without any possessions, including IDs or phones, if they had them in the first place.
Watch below: Drone footage released by the Government of Alberta shows large clouds of smoke from the wildfires threatening areas of northern Alberta.
Dejarlais said the Métis council would also like to see more communication between it and the government, as they’re finding it difficult to keep their community members updated and informed about the status of the wildfire situation.
He pointed to the fact that the Government of Alberta’s wildfire website, which provides status and location updates, has been intermittent in the past couple of days. Global News also experienced technical issues with the maps on Thursday.
“We really commend teams and fire crews who are there, who are putting their lives at risk, but they need more support and aren’t being supported,” Dejarlais said.
He added that government officials told them there was no rain relief in sight, so the fire situation would only get worse.
Speaking to the media on Friday, Premier Jason Kenney said he was sorry to hear that homes were lost on the settlement.
“It came to that community very quickly and the priority of the wildfire service is human life, and then after that it’s property, so the focus was on the rapid evacuation,” Kenney said.
“Additional resources have been deployed to that area. We’ll obviously be supporting the evacuees and it’s very regrettable that there’s been that loss of property,” he said. “We look forward to working with the leaders of that community to address their issues and I hope to speak with the settlement leader myself.”
The Chuckegg Creek wildfire spanned more than 230,000 hectares as of 7 p.m. on Thursday. Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement was under a mandatory evacuation alert as of 7 p.m. on Thursday.
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