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'We've been through it before': Dene Tha' First Nation practiced evacuation years before recent wildfire

After a wildfire evacuation in 2012, the Dene Tha' First Nation has been preparing in case it happened again.

Research group focused on evacuation in 2012 and made recommendations

Nearly 400 firefighters, 28 helicopters and eight air tankers are fighting the wildfire burning near the northern Alberta town of High Level. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

The Dene Tha' First Nation learned valuable lessons seven years ago as a wildfire approached their homes. Last week the community was able to use that knowledge as another fire threatened the community. 

Chief James Ahnassay admits the speed of the approaching Chuckegg Creek fire caught him off guard, but says the evacuation was successful.

"It's always a challenge with logistics of moving people, but we've been through it before," Ahnassay said.

Residents of Bushe River and Meander River, along with residents of High Level, evacuated their homes on the evening of May 20 as a wildfire moved within kilometres of their homes. The fire is now approximately 127,000 hectares in size, according to Alberta Wildfire. 

It was not the first time that residents would need to leave their homes — a fire near Lutose, Alta. led to an evacuation to nearby High Level in 2012. After that fire, Dene Tha' First Nation improved  its emergency preparedness. 

RCMP officer and a volunteer band member tell people to leave their homes as part of an emergency exercise in 2016. (Supplied by Alberta Municipal Affairs)

In 2016, the community held its first evacuation exercise where volunteers went door to door and community members travelled in buses to a mock evacuation centre.

The Dene Tha' First Nation has its own emergency management department and communities in the First Nation have their own evacuation plans. 

Alberta has a federal funding agreement to provide emergency management training on First Nations. 

In 2014, the First Nations Wildfire Evacuation Partnership researched the previous wildfire evacuation experience of the Dene Tha' First Nation. It focused on first nation communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario and ways to reduce the negative impacts of wildfire evacuations.

One of the recommendations was to craft transportation plans that consider residents with mobility issues and those that don't own vehicles. Other recommendations included prioritizing elders and offering volunteer opportunities to evacuees during displacement.

"They had carried out quite extensive preparedness activities after our research," said Tara McGee, the partnership's academic lead. "So, they were very proactive in terms of making sure that their community was prepared for an evacuation. So certainly hoping that work that they put in helped them this time around."

Travis.mcewan@cbc.ca

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