Indigenous

Indigenous communities take in Fort McMurray fire evacuees, scramble to find members

Indigenous communities and groups are scrambling to ensure their people are safe, and taking in evacuees, as tens of thousands flee the massive wildfire raging through the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray.

Fort McKay First Nation shelters 3,000 evacuees, while Métis group loses headquarters to wildfire

CEO George Arcand welcomes evacuees to the Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

Indigenous communities and groups are scrambling to ensure their people are safe, and taking in evacuees, as tens of thousands flee the massive wildfire raging through the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray.

Chief Jim Boucher said many members of Fort McKay First Nation, which is about 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, owned houses or lived in the city.

"Their houses burned down," he said. "My sister, my uncle, as well as other people, I think they have nothing to go back to."

Boucher said his community, which is not in the fire's path, has taken in around 3,000 people, many of them housed in work camps. Others are staying in the band hall, school, arena and community buildings.

Boucher said he's doing his best to help people feel safe and secure.

"There's a lot of emotions right now," he said.

Fort McKay has organized meals, gathered diapers for families and ensured people have medication — but fuel is in short supply, Boucher said.

First Nation evacuated

On Wednesday evening, the approximately 700 members the Fort McMurray First Nation #468, about 40 kilometres south of the city, fled as the wildfire moved closer.

Communities in the area had been sheltering hundreds of evacuees.

Photos from the Fort McMurray First Nation area show red flames and a massive wall of smoke in the sky. RCMP went door to door in Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation after the mandatory evacuation order was issued.

'We've got people all over the place'

Mikisew Cree Nation, headquartered in Fort Chipwyan, Alta., has also been affected by the fire. Many members lived in Fort McMurray, even though the community is around 220 kilometres north of the city.

Those who made it north of the city were offered a flight to Fort Chipewyan on a plane leaving one of the nearby work camps. Some have been travelling north in boats. Community members who fled south have been put in several Edmonton hotels.

It's the same situation for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, also based in Fort Chipwyan.

Chief Allan Adam says his community is scrambling to locate members and bring them home. (CBC)
"We've got people all over the place. We can't get a hold of everybody," said Chief Allan Adam. "People are everywhere. People are displaced everywhere."

The displaced people include Adam's wife, who is in a camp near Fort McKay. Mental health counsellors and cultural support workers were sent to Edmonton to help people cope with the chaos of the sudden evacuation.

'The building is gone'

Many Indigenous groups in the area had offices in Fort McMurray, including McMurray Métis. The organization represents around 300 Métis people and their families who live in the area.

"'The building is gone," said Dan Stuckless, the group's general manager.

Stuckless said most of the group's board and staff have been accounted for, "scattered across Alberta," but they're trying to use social media to locate all the membership. 

"We've got some folks who live out on traplines and things like that we'll need to make contact with."

Stuckless and his family had been staying in Anzac with friends after first escaping the fire on Tuesday, but it's unclear whether they are among the hundreds of evacuees who have had to retreat even further south.

With files from Garrett Hinchey and Cameron MacIntosh

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