'Part of me feels I should have died with my cats': Siksika residents lose homes, animals in fire

Norbert Bear Chief suffered burns on his head as he tried to save his house by dousing the area around it with water until it was nearly too late. Quickly, Bear Chief's home had become completely surrounded by fire and he had to drive through a wall of flames to get out.

WARNING: Story contains graphic image that may be disturbing to some readers

A tear runs down Norbert Bear Chief's cheek as he looks at what's left of his home on the Siksika Nation after it was destroyed by fire Tuesday night. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

Norbert Bear Chief wipes tears from his cheek as he watches the smouldering ruins of his home after it burned to the ground in a vicious grassfire on the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta Tuesday night.

"It's kind of hard for a 58-year-old man to be crying," said Bear Chief from the driver's seat of his car.

Bear Chief's home was still smouldering when he returned to his property Wednesday morning. Bear Chief's two cats died in the fire. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

It was a close call Tuesday night; Bear Chief suffered burns on his head as he tried to save his house by dousing the area around it with water. Bear Chief's home was quickly surrounded by fire and he had to drive through a wall of flames to get out. 

Bear Chief lost not only his home of 33 years but his beloved cats, Pumpkin and Oreo. On Wednesday morning, he returned to his property and sat in his car.

"A part of me feels I should have died with my cats," said Bear Chief. "I came here at seven this morning to be with their spirits."

A local state of emergency has been declared as wildfires close in on areas near Gleichen. 1:49

Sitting on the ridge, high above the Bow River, Bear Chief's home usually offers a stunning view. Just down the hill is where the flames jumped the river and burned up the steep bank.

On Wednesday — after about 300 people on Siksika were forced from their homes the night before — huge swaths of charred land mark the fire's wide and destructive path through the community. 

"There's nothing to be proud of anymore, it's no longer God's Garden of Eden. People are telling me you can start all over again," he said.

"I don't want to start all over again."

The grass fire jumped the Bow River to the Siksika Nation. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

Up the road from Bear Chief, the Many Guns' family home is intact, but they lost their barn and stable as well as two horses, whose charred remains were found in their blackened field.

The Many Guns were also forced from their home as the fire fuelled by 100 km/h winds sped toward the property. 

As Grade 11 student Payne Many Guns was getting dropped off after school, the smell of smoke was just beginning to fill the air. 

Two of the Many Guns' horses were unable to escape the fire and died on their property. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

When the family realized they had to get out, they only had a few minutes to pack their bags. 

"It was really hard to breathe and my lungs started hurting," said Many Guns. "I felt like crying, I thought everything was going to be lost here … my house is everything to me."

When the family returned, the short grass around their house was charred, two horses were dead and metal gates from the stable were all that remained of their barn.

All that's left of the Many Guns family's barn are the iron stables after a fire tore across their property. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

It's unknown how many animals were killed in the fire, but at least five horses died. 

While no one died in the fire, Chief Joe Weasel Child said one elder was taken to Strathmore Hospital with burns and others were suffering from respiratory problems.

At the local arena, displaced people were fed hot meals by volunteers.

Weasel Child urged people in the area to drive with caution — livestock are at large after the flames ate away at fences.

Once he gets a sense of how many people will be displaced for the long term, he'll know better what kind of help is needed.

Payne Many Guns says the community's response to the fire makes him proud to be Siksika. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

There was a constant flow of traffic on Wednesday as friends and neighbours pulled into the Many Guns' driveway. People showed up to survey the damage, talk about their own and recount their escape from the fire the night before. 

It's that sense of community — which also came out during the 2013 floods — that Many Guns said he's proud of. 

"It's a good feeling to be Siksika."