The efforts to evacuate Fort Chipewyan were ramped up Wednesday when the phased evacuation was changed to a widespread push to get people out of the remote community with no road access.
A wildfire north of Fort McMurray is threatening Fort Chipewyan, a community of around 1,000 people only accessible by plane or boat in the summer and by a winter road in the winter.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued a joint evacuation order for the entire Fort Chipewyan community Tuesday night.
At that time, the priority for evacuation was vulnerable and elderly people and it would be done in stages, but that changed Wednesday.
Just before noon, an Alberta emergency alert was updated to tell people they no longer had to wait for someone to knock on their door to be told to leave.
“Evacuate today,” people were told.
The remote, isolated nature of the community means people can’t just pack up their belongings and drive to safety.
Air transportation to Fort McMurray is being arranged, as well as temporary accommodations in Fort McMurray and Fort McKay.
All evacuees are told to report to Archie Simpson Arena in Fort Chip to register as an evacuee, receive a wristband and be assigned a flight.
People with pets were told to bring them to the arena as well, with a leash and crate if possible, as plans are in place to keep animals safe.
“We work very closely with the local authorities in this community all year round to prep for this type of thing and to have plans in place,” said Bre Hutchinson, with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
She said Wednesday afternoon 630 people had been helped out of the area, 96 by boat and 537 by air, including 108 taken out on a Canadian Armed Forces Hercules aircraft.
“Because we recognize this is such a remote community, with only those two options to evacuate, we do work closely and early on with officials to ensure we can get people out as quickly and safely as possible,” Hutchinson said.
Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, told Global News the last large plane was leaving at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
“We’ll be down to fixed-wing (aircraft) from there,” he said. “Small planes.”
Adam described Tuesday as “chaotic” but said things had settled down a bit.
“We managed to move, in two days, 800 people out of the community.”
He said the remaining 300 or so people will be urged to leave unless they’re qualified to assist in the fire fight.
“There will be community members who stay behind and start the efforts of working with the local volunteer fire department and also with the Alberta Forestry Service to get a grip on how we’re going to combat the fire.
“There’s some military support, there’s some emergency social services, RCMP are here, bylaw, peace officers. We’ve got quite the crew here that will stand and protect the community,” Adam said.
“We’ve got over 800 people that left the community that depend on us to defend our community. We’re going to do what we can, in all efforts to do that, myself included.”
He said the fire is about 4.5 kilometres from the airport and a bit over five kilometres from Allison Bay.
“I’m quite nervous,” Adam said. “I feel kind of scared in some way. But this is our community and we have to do what’s right to protect it.
“People are scared. People are worried about their homes. People are just worried about their belongings altogether in that regard. And they have every right to.”
Adam said they’re praying for rain.
“This is the first time we had to evacuate our community of Fort Chip and it’s an eerie feeling.”
Residents evacuating by boat on the Athabasca River should report to Big Dock before travelling south to Fort McKay or to their cabin.
The Canadian Armed Forces is helping to get people to safety.
The military said the Alberta government asked for help late Tuesday afternoon, and a C-130J Hercules aircraft was sent in to airlift people south.
Members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry part of the efforts.
Canadian Rangers from 4 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group already living in the community were activated and they supported evacuation efforts on the ground, the CAF said.
The military said it transported 116 evacuees from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray Tuesday night in the Hercules.
As of Tuesday night, the fire was about 13 kilometres away from Fort Chipewyan but closer to the airport, and even closer to Allison Bay, a First Nations community of about 125 people.
The fire, MWF025, was about four kilometres from Allison Bay on Tuesday but an update from Alberta Wildfire on Wednesday said it was now 2.8 kilometres away.
Josee St-Onge, information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said Wednesday the wildfire, burning north of Fort Chipewyan, is the agency’s top priority.
It was 8,600 hectares in size and about 10 kilometres from Fort Chipewyan, she said.
The majority of growth was to the northeast, away from the community, St-Onge added, and the winds were also blowing away from the community.
“We have firefighters, helicopters with buckets and air tankers working on this fire, with more resources arriving today.”
This wildfire is classified as out of control and Alberta Wildfire said it was caused by lightning.
Adam said it’s been an aerial attack because it’s too dangerous for a ground attack.
During the daily fire update on Tuesday, Alberta Wildfire information unit manager Christie Tucker said the fire was detected Sunday at 300 hectares but has grew tenfold in 48 hours to more than 3,000 hectares.