The last remaining evacuees from Fox Lake are safe after fleeing a wildfire threatening the isolated community in northern Alberta.
Some evacuees have headed as far away as Grande Prairie, a six-hour drive, as hotel rooms and the evacuation centre in High Level filled up.
Chief Conroy Sewepagaham told Global News that it might be a couple weeks until the 3,700 residents are able to return to Fox Lake.
“I know a lot of people are sitting on edge, they’re thinking the fire has jumped the river – it hasn’t,” he said.
“I know some people have heard that all of Fox Lake has burnt down – it has not.”
The fire was last recorded at nearly 4,400 hectares in size as of Thursday, but it has grown “significantly” and the intense fire activity and smoke has made it hard to accurately gauge the size, according to Sewepagaham.
Areas started evacuating Wednesday afternoon but by Thursday, the situation was dire. The only way in and out of Little Red River Cree Nation is a small barge. A line of 600 people was waiting to cross the Peace River at its busiest moment, according to Chief Conroy Sewepagaham.
At one point, the fire was too close to the barge landing to use, according to officials.
In a social media update around 8 p.m. Thursday, Sewepagaham said helicopters were dumping water on houses in the community.
“Unfortunately, we are losing homes left and right and centre,” he said.
Determining how many homes have been lost has been hard as smoke is affecting visibility, he said.
PHOTOS: Residents of Fox Lake fled the remote community as a wildfire grew larger than 4,400 hectares.
Christie Tucker of Alberta Wildfire said the fire situation across the province is rapidly changing.
”We were able to conduct night time fire operations overnight using night vision technology which allows us to fight wildfire around the clock,” she said at a press conference Friday morning.
Tucker said it was expected the wildfires across the province would keep growing Friday.
“It’s early in the day,” Tucker said. “It’s going to get hotter, it’s going to get windier and we’re expecting some extreme wildfire behaviour.
“Firefighters are at the ready today for what could be a very challenging day.”
Overnight Thursday and into Friday morning, residents from areas that had been evacuated — Fox Lake and Little Red River Cree Nation — were arriving at the High Level Sports Complex.
Bill Schnarr, spokesperson for High Level, said the evacuees are being welcomed by High Level residents.
“We’ve had a lot of people coming in steadily over the past two days,” Schnarr said.
“This is something that happens just about annually up here for the town of High Level so we’ve gotten quite good at it over the years and we’re just happy to be able to help our neighbours.”
High Level chief administrative officer Clark McAskile said Fox Lake is a very isolated area, with some residents only speaking Cree and some having never left the community, adding that the evacuation will be quite jarring for some.
Multiple private boats came to help evacuees, while about 115 were airlifted out by Alberta Wildfire and many left on foot via the barge, McAskile said.
He said this is the 12th evacuation to High Level in the last 20 years, highlighting the need for a proper evacuation centre.
Darryl Sowan with the emergency management team said the evacuation went well but it was complicated due to the limited options to leave the community.
“This is a bit of a wake-up call to the government … that they really need some upgrades or something,” he said.
Sewepagaham said a bridge “absolutely” needs to be built to help
“A key thing would be getting Highway 58 paved,” he added.
The community used buses to transport people from Fox Lake to the evacuation centres as Sewepagaham said the highway could not have handled the cars of 1,000 residents.
“At the time of this report, 20 households, the police station and the Northern Store have been lost,” the government said, adding transmission lines have been destroyed.
“A reception centre has opened at the Fox Lake Band Office.”
Joseph Boysis said he dropped off donuts and coffee at the evacuation centre. He was compelled to help when the evacuees showed up in High Level.
“It’s kind of surreal because you hear about the fires … Then when it actually happens, you realise how devastating it is to these families and the little kids, especially over here without any of their personal belongings,” said Boysis.
“Nobody has a home to go to right now.”
He said people are emotional as they wait for information from officials.
“It’s just a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
More to come.