Alberta wildfires: Hard-hit Metis settlement still under evacuation order, resident wants more help

Click to play video: 'Close call for firefighters on East Prairie Metis Settlement'
Close call for firefighters on East Prairie Metis Settlement
Firefighters had to run for safety as a wildfire quickly approached the East Prairie Metis Settlement near High Prairie, Alta. A resident says the community isn't getting enough help from the Alberta government. Slav Kornik has the story. – May 22, 2023

More than two weeks after the threat of wildfire prompted an evacuation order for East Prairie Metis Settlement in northern Alberta, a community member’s social media post is drawing new attention to the situation there and he is calling for more help from the province.

“I think the province needs to step up,” Marcel Desjarlais told Global News on Monday, noting he was disappointed with how firefighters were deployed into the area and when.

He said while the province did deploy firefighters, he believes local volunteer firefighters could have used more help earlier and still could now.

He noted that at least 24 homes in the community have already been destroyed by wildfire this spring along with vehicles and other equipment.

At a news conference to provide an update on the provincial wildfire situation Monday afternoon, Alberta Wildfire information unit manager Christie Tucker was asked about resources in the settlement area and concerns being raised.

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“We have 56 firefighters and four heavy equipment groups working on the fire there,” she said, adding that crews have been recently focusing their efforts in that area on the northwestern parts of the fire with helicopter support.

She said crews were told to leave another area where the fire was being fought there because of safety concerns posed by the flames.

“Our No. 1 priority when we’re fighting wildfires is preserving human life, and communities as well,” Tucker said, adding Alberta Wildfire personnel work closely with local firefighters. “It’s a team effort … we do what we can to inhibit the fire from approaching the community.

“No firefighter wants to see a fire getting into a community, and it’s something they work very hard to avoid.”

The community of about 300 people is located about 165 kilometres east of Grande Prairie.

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On Saturday, Desjarlais posted video to Twitter that he said was sent to him by one of his nephews — one of several of his family members who are helping to fight fire in the area.

It shows a tanker truck on a road next to a forest that is burning. At one point the fire dramatically flares up and someone is heard yelling as several firefighters jog away from the flames.

Desjarlais said his nephew sent him the video to show him that he and other firefighters were battling the blaze near the four houses on his farm. He said at one point the flames were within 200 metres of a home.

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“It was scary,” Desjarlais said.

He said this was the second time the wildfires have come uncomfortably close to his farm. He said earlier this month, the fire “came down through the valley and went all the way around our fields and our houses” but “missed us.”

According to Desjarlais, the winds eventually shifted, once again putting his farm in the fire’s path. He said while there has been significant destruction in the Metis community, volunteer firefighters have successfully “saved a lot of homes” with limited resources.

“We’re so grateful,” Desjarlais said of the volunteer firefighters. “I commend them and I thank them for their hard work and their commitment and their resiliency to save the community, cause that’s what they did.”

Desjarlais added that people who live in the East Prairie Metis Settlement “really come together when the times are tough and this just shows that.”

“We all have experience fighting fire,” he noted.

Click to play video: 'Rainy, cooler weather could slow down record-breaking Alberta wildfires'
Rainy, cooler weather could slow down record-breaking Alberta wildfires

Desjarlais said his community reached out to the province to ask for more help last Monday. He said any additional equipment that volunteer firefighters can have access to would be appreciated.

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Bre Hutchinson, the executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, also spoke at the same news conference as Tucker. When asked about the situation at the East Prairie Metis Settlement, she said the AEMA has ensured that field officers and social services workers are “in close contact with the community” and “will work directly with that community” as additional needs are identified.

She noted the community remains under an evacuation order and a damage assessment will only be completed upon re-entry.

With exactly a week until election day, Desjarlais said Monday he believes the election should be postponed so that politicians can focus their entire attention to the fire “until we get a hold of things and come up with a strategy and plan to attack these fires.”

Last week, the Metis Settlements General Council tweeted that “East Prairie members have been relocated to communities near the settlement — primarily in High Prairie.”

“The executive is working with the settlement leaders on needs and information sharing, as well as directly connecting with the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta and the Red Cross to request assistance and support and to remove barriers to support that emerge.”

— With files from Slav Kornik, Global News

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