Alberta wildfires: Metis settlement asks province for 2nd access road

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
WATCH: 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

The only way in and out of the East Prairie Metis Settlement is a 40-kilometre range road that connects with Highway 2 some 360 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Resident Ron Bellerose said it’s a good thing a devastating May wildfire started south of the community and didn’t cut off the road leading north to the key highway.

“There’s only one escape route in East Prairie and that’s the scary part,” says Bellerose, who has been living in a hotel room in nearby High Prairie since the blaze levelled his home about two months ago.

As he waits for a new modular home to fill the hole on his land, the 63-year-old is worried the settlement could be one natural disaster away from a life-threatening catastrophe.

“If a fire starts next spring from the northeast corner and heads south, that’s going to be a whole different story,” he says.

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Click to play video: 'Close call for firefighters on East Prairie Metis Settlement'
Close call for firefighters on East Prairie Metis Settlement

The chair of East Prairie says building a second access road has become a priority.

Raymond Supernault says there was another fire that followed the one that prompted the settlement’s evacuation.

The second one started on the community’s northeast end.

“It was crossing our highway that we use to get out of East Prairie and to get to High Prairie,” he says.

If fires were to ignite both on the south and north ends at the same time, Supernault says the community would have been trapped inside.

“It would be hazardous for us — we don’t want to be stuck in here during emergencies,” he says.

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

Supernault says the settlement has been asking the provincial government for an alternate route for more than two decades, but nothing has been done. The settlement can’t afford to build one and would need the province’s help.

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Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors says it has been in contact with East Prairie and is “actively monitoring the wildfire situation and its potential effect on community access.”

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“We will be conducting further site review and remain committed to finding a safe, timely and workable solution for the people of East Prairie Metis Settlement,” the ministry says in an emailed statement.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Officials confirm firefighter seriously injured'
Alberta wildfires: Officials confirm firefighter seriously injured

Over the last two months, wildfires burned more than 14,000 square kilometres across the province and forced 38,000 Albertans out of their homes.

East Prairie lost about 40 homes, of which 14 were inhabited at the time of the wildfire, says Coun. Reva Jaycox.

The Alberta government approved a $175-million recovery program earlier this month to help municipalities and Metis settlements affected by wildfires.

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While East Prairie is eligible for Alberta’s Disaster Recovery Program, Supernault says he doesn’t know yet how much funding is coming his community’s way.

Restoring homes and demanding alternate access is just the beginning, Jaycox said, adding she expects the recovery to take at least two years.

That includes cleaning the burnt forest, establishing stronger fireguards surrounding the settlement, as well as reforesting lands that may take about 20 years to fully develop.

Click to play video: 'Province to provide financial support for Albertan communities hit by wildfires'
Province to provide financial support for Albertan communities hit by wildfires

Jaycox points at a map, titled “East Prairie Harvest Plan,” posted on the wall in the settlement’s office.

It shows a fireguard around the settlement — a 400-metre-wide gap between the tree line and the community to stop flames from jumping in.

Supernault came up with the idea four years ago after another Metis settlement 390 kilometres north — Paddle Prairie — lost homes in a wildfire.

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The plan was to remove trees, but Supernault says the community fell short in maintaining the firebreak.

“We cleared it, but we were supposed to go back and mulch it and burn the other little debris,” he said. “And that didn’t happen.”

The fire is also prompting residents to better fireproof their homes.

Bellerose plans to install a water pump on his property and knock down trees.

“You’ll be able to see the farmhouses down the highway,” he said.

Alberta’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations says it is hard to completely fireproof a community, but suggested practising FireSmart techniques could reduce damage

Click to play video: '‘It’s time that we take charge and take ownership’: FireSmart Alberta'
‘It’s time that we take charge and take ownership’: FireSmart Alberta

FireSmart, a program by the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta, has been helping communities to manage wildfire threats since 2013. It has recommendations on how to construct, maintain and landscape properties in a way that lessens the risk of materials igniting.

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The settlement is also negotiating terms to insure homes in East Prairie. Jaycox says they’re not insured because of the long distance from the nearest fire station.

The ministry acknowledged the “need for more comprehensive insurance options for Metis settlements.”

“Given what we have seen this spring and in previous wildfire scenarios, we know a longer-term solution is needed to mitigate the elevated risks settlements face.”

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