Indigenous community near High Prairie feels left behind in Alberta wildfire response

Click to play video: 'Indigenous community near High Prairie feels left behind in Alberta wildfire response'
Indigenous community near High Prairie feels left behind in Alberta wildfire response
East Prairie Metis Settlement, located near High Prairie in the Slave Lake region, is focusing on a rebuilding after nearly 30 homes burned. But the province's wildfire response has left the Indigenous community feeling left behind. Morgan Black explains – May 9, 2023

Late last week an out-of-control wildfire ripped through part of East Prairie Métis Settlement, Alta., forcing more than 300 people to flee.

According to Raymond Supernault, chairperson for the settlement located more than 300 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, neighbours didn’t hesitate to help fight the fires.

“People were willing to jump up and help. It was crazy, you didn’t even have to ask, they came to you and they said, ‘What can I do?’” said Supernault.

“At the end of the day, it is the membership that needed to do what they needed to do to save their houses.”

Not every home was saved, though. Twenty-seven homes were destroyed, 14 of which had people living in them — including Carol Johnston’s.

Rubble is all that’s left of Carol Johnston’s home in East Prairie Métis Settlement after a fire ripped through part of the northern Alberta community. Morgan Black, Global News

The fire started Thursday. Johnston spoke to some local firefighters on her way home from her job at the school in East Prairie.

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“(They) said, ‘The fire’s just started and it’s moving fast,’ and I said ‘where’s our help, who’s on it?’ and there was nobody on it at the time,” she said.

Johnston called Supernault, who told her Alberta Environment and Protected Areas had said not to worry.

The next day, the settlement was evacuated.

Click to play video: 'Wildfire devastates East Prairie Metis Settlement in northern Alberta'
Wildfire devastates East Prairie Metis Settlement in northern Alberta

“It came that fast, and I wasn’t supposed to worry,” said Johnston.

The fire entered the community from the south side destroying part of a bridge. It ate through multiple houses as it burned hundreds of square kilometres of trees and brush.

The fire named the Grizzly Complex – actually three large fires very close together – grew in size to more than 56,000 hectares as of Monday night, according to the province.

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Part of a bridge was destroyed in a wildfire in East Prairie Métis Settlement in early May 2023. Morgan Black, Global News

Johnston rattled off a list of whose house was lost, on which day — a sign of how tight-knit the community is.

“If we would have had help last Thursday, guess what? We’d still have a settlement.”

Marcel Desjarlais, who lives in East Prairie, said the community feels it was “left holding the bag” by the provincial response.

The aftermath of a wildfire in East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta in early May 2023. Global News
The aftermath of a wildfire that tore through East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta in May 2023. Global News

“Eventually, (the province) pulled out their equipment and they pulled out their personnel and they went to fight another fire,” he said.

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“It really upset a lot of people and a lot of the community was pretty hurt by that.”

Members battling the fires saw trucks come in with firefighting equipment but turn around, he said.

“All of a sudden, they’re thinking we’re not a priority anymore.”

Burnt-out cars in East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta following a wildfire in early May 2023. Global News

It didn’t stop the local firefighters from working to save the settlement, though. Desjarlais said evacuees in nearby towns started sending food and water to their neighbours battling the fire.

“Everybody was concerned and kept telling them they should come out and they should rest and they should take a break or let somebody relieve them, but they just kept going,” said Desjarlais.

“They did that for three days and three nights. It’s amazing, it’s remarkable.”

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Global News reached out to Alberta Wildfire to ask about the fire response to the Grizzly Complex, but the agency had not replied by the time of publication.

Click to play video: 'Wildfire devastates East Prairie Metis Settlement in northern Alberta'
Wildfire devastates East Prairie Metis Settlement in northern Alberta

A spokesperson for the provincial ministry of public safety and emergency services said in an emailed statement that the province carefully evaluates its response to all wildfires.

“Several factors are taken into consideration when fighting a wildfire, including the potential threat to people, communities, watershed and soils, other natural resources and infrastructure,” said Sheena Campbell.

“Municipalities are responsible for structural protection of their communities. Alberta Wildfire does everything we can to fight a fire before it gets to a community,” Campbell added.

Click to play video: 'A look at the toll a wildfire has taken on the Fox Lake area'
A look at the toll a wildfire has taken on the Fox Lake area

Johnston said she feels that the communities closer to Edmonton and central Alberta have been getting more attention than the northern, Indigenous communities destroyed by fire.

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“Four houses burnt (near) Drayton Valley yesterday, it’s all over the media. East Prairie lost 14 and we lost our settlement and there’s been nothing on the news saying, ‘These people are in dire straits,’” said Johnston.

The community is still under an evacuation order. When residents do return, the next step is to rebuild, Supernault said.

“Right now we’re a community. We’re going through this together,” said Supernault. “We’re going to build together, we’re going to cry together.”

Having lost their house, Johnston said she asked her son and his wife if they wanted to leave the settlement.

“He said ‘Why would we, mom? It’s our home,’” she said. “We’re going to stay and try and rebuild and that’s all we can do.”

Carol Johnston listening at a community update after a wildfire tore through her community of East Prairie Métis Settlement in Alberta in early May 2023. Global News

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said part of the aid she has requested from the federal government is in the form of shelter for evacuees in northern Alberta.

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“What I talked to the Prime Minister about is to make sure that we’ve got manufactured homes so that they can offer temporary housing and then be able to move them on to the settlement.”

Patty Hajdu, federal Minister of Indigenous Services, said there is personnel on the ground helping with evacuations and firefighting equipment.

“I think people are very concerned with mental health and the condition of the evacuees … Obviously, it’s very anxiety-provoking,” she said.

Hajdu said she’s talked with some area Chiefs and they’re concerned with the rebuild process.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire evacuees to get financial aid, military to help'
Alberta wildfire evacuees to get financial aid, military to help

“We’ve told them we’ll be there for them. Obviously, we have to get through this emergency and crisis,” said Hajdu.

“The assessments are starting to begin … There was a lot of structural damage. Hundreds of homes now gone, community infrastructure that’s now gone, so it’s going to be a huge rebuild.”

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Hajdu said the federal government is providing specialized supports for evacuees who speak only Cree.

During a Monday afternoon update on the wildfire situation, Smith announced funding support for evacuees.

Adults who have been evacuated for at least seven total days will receive $1,250 from the province, and an additional $500 for children under 18.

People can apply online, and, if eligible, will receive funding via e-transfer.

“These payments will help evacuees pay for accommodations, food and other basic necessities,” Smith said. “The payments will make those expenses one less thing for people to worry about so that they can concentrate on their families and their own well-being.”

People can apply for the Emergency Evacuation Funding through the provincial website.

– with files from Morgan Black and Meaghan Archer, Global News and The Canadian Press

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