As Fort McMurray fire grows, First Nations and small towns step up for evacuees

Northern Alberta looks like a post-apocalyptic scene as people are left stranded
Photo: Premier of Alberta

The fire has grown to 85,000 hectares. In the neighbourhoods hardest hit, only remnants of vehicles, office buildings and homes are left. Communities have been levelled, reduced to ash that is strewn by the wind.

The northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray looks like a post-apocalyptic scene.

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More than 80,000 residents, elders, parents and children are transient at this time, moving away from the disastrous fire. Many are heading north, as the route to Edmonton was blocked.

Cleo Reece (Cree) is coordinator of the Healing Gathering for the Land and Water, a tour of the impacts of oil development on Fort McMurray First Nation traditional lands. She told Ricochet that many people have been left stranded as they try to leave the area.

Fuel shortages

Some people are stuck in their cars.

“The line-ups (of cars) were down the highway, there were hundreds of vehicles, and many more down the highway and apparently they got stranded because they ran out of gas,” said Reece.

People are offering their homes to accommodate the evacuation.

“The last gas station out of Fort McMurray was the one that blew up yesterday … and after that there is nothing for 40 kilometres.”

People have congregated with their vehicles at a gas station near Reece, waiting for fuel refills. “People camped out overnight at our gas station, just to be in line next to get gas when the truck came. The truck did come with gas, but they are only letting you fill up $40 per person. That is all they are allowing I guess in order to make it last longer for more people.”

Search for shelter

First Nations communities and small towns are pitching in to help evacuees, some of whom have nowhere to return to. Towns are opening up their community centres and schools, and people are offering their homes to accommodate the evacuation.

Reece has opened her house to evacuees in the Fort McMurray First Nation. She said she had close to a dozen evacuees staying in her home last night.

“No one has ever heard of a fire this close to the community.”

“We had families, we had an elderly lady of 85, we had children, toddlers, and you know, people just stranded.”

In nearby Fort Chipewyan, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is asking those who have been uprooted to contact the band.

An ‘alarming and surprising’ fire

“No one has ever heard of a fire this close to the community,” said Reece. “This is very unusual. Elders have never heard of anything like this in their memory, and the fact that it started up so quickly was very surprising.”

“I believe there is definitely a climate change due to burning of fossil fuels. And it’s been dryer than normal. At this time of year it shouldn’t be burning. There shouldn’t be so much fires burning out of control because it’s wetland, we live in a wetland area. Just seeing fires come so close, especially in a wetland area, it is very alarming and surprising.”

The past couple of days have seen record high temperatures in Alberta. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

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