More than 700 residents of Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement were able to return Thursday after an evacuation order was lifted, but for some, it was a difficult homecoming.
Sixteen homes were destroyed by the massive Chuckegg Creek Wildfire at the end of May. About 15 more were damaged by flames and smoke.
Community members have been out of their homes for more than three weeks. Most of them saw the destruction for the first time on Thursday afternoon.
Ronnie Cardinal volunteered with the firefight and knew his house was gone. That didn’t make seeing the burned lot again any easier.
“We didn’t have a chance because it was rolling so fast,” he said.
“I lost three-quarter sections of land, a campground, my mom and dad’s place, my place.”
When his father passed away, Cardinal was given the land and he decided to build on it. The home he’s lived in for 10 years was destroyed by the wildfire.
“It hurts. It hurts to see,” he said, his voice breaking. “It’s very hard to come here and look at it like this… You can’t even come home.”
Cardinal walked around what remains of his home — a washer and dryer, wood stove and oven — charred and barely recognizable.
“Everything here was humble. I loved it.”
He’s determined to rebuild.
“It took me 10 years to build that area and so I want to go back. That’s my home.”
The settlement is working to find temporary housing for those who lost homes and is working with the province on a plan to rebuild.
But the built infrastructure that’s been lost isn’t the only concern.
“We are dependent on the wildlife,” Lori Wanuch, vice chair of the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement, said.
“A lot of our people only eat the wild meat — the ducks, the geese. With so much of our forest being gone, we really don’t know how we’re going to survive.”
Wanuch said she’s relieved residents are being allowed to come home but some people whose houses were destroyed may choose to stay away until other accommodations are arranged.
The Chuckegg Creek fire destroyed Wanuch’s family home, where her sister had been living. It’s a particularly difficult loss, she says, because her parents have passed away.
“It’s tough to see.”
Support services, including a mental health support team to accompany people to see their homes, are being offered to returning residents.
As of 4:30 p.m. on June 20, there were seven active wildfires in the High Level area, including the Chuckegg Creek fire (which had grown to about 330,127 hectares) and the Jackpot Creek fire (about 77,500 hectares).
Fire officials said there was no rain overnight on the east side of Chuckegg Creek fire and negligible amounts on the rest of the wildfire.
Approximately 8,500 people remain out of their homes as of Thursday evening. Evacuation orders are in place for:
- Beaver First Nation – Boyer River (No. 164) and Child Lake (No. 164A)
- Dene Tha’ First Nation – Bushe River (No. 207)
- Mackenzie County
- Rocky Lane and High Level area north of the Peace River, south of Highway 58, west of Range Road 150
- Hamlet of La Crete
- Range Road 164 to Range Road 150, south of the Peace River, north of Highway 697
- Peerless Trout First Nation – Trout Lake community and high-risk persons in the surrounding area
— With files from Julia Wong, Global News