Fort McKay welcomed evacuees, 4 days later the wildfire came knocking

Fort McKay First Nation, home to about 600 people, found itself accommodating four times as many evacuees when wildfire forced 80,000 people out of Fort McMurray.

Flames chased 2,000 evacuees to the tiny First Nation, but days later the wildfire had everyone on the run

Evacuees are served dinner at the community centre in Fort McKay. The 600-member First Nation accommodated about 2,000 evacuees before the wildfire forced everyone to leave four days later. (Provided)

Fort McKay First Nation, home to about 600 people, found itself accommodating four times as many evacuees when wildfire forced 80,000 people out of Fort McMurray.

When the fire jumped the Athabasca River on May 3, most of the population fled south. As the flames spread, many were turned north.

Fort McKay CEO George Arcand said the First Nation didn't expect the sudden influx, but stepped up quickly.

"I was really proud of the people of Fort McKay. They opened up their homes and they opened up their community," Arcand said.

Normally four people live in the Fabian family's home.

On the evening of May 3, there were 29 people in the house. 

The Fabians took in family, friends and friends of family.

Candace Fabian said she called her parents in Fort McMurray when the fire began moving towards the Thickwood neighbourhood.

"Then all of a sudden people started calling me," she said.

Most evacuees, under pressure to pack, arrived with little, she said.

Fabian cooked dinner for them all. Twelve settled in for the night.

"For the most part, they were OK. They were fine with just being there. They were trying to figure out ways to go south," Fabian said.
Fort McKay CEO George Arcand addresses Fort McMurray evacuees. (Provided)

A similar situation, but on a larger scale, was unfolding at the community centre, where about 1,000 people had gathered.

Jeff Peddle was among them.

"There were certainly a lot of people very panicked, not sure if it was going to be one night or if it was going to be three or four nights," he said. "To me, it was just kind of insanity to see people coming together that quickly to help."

Peddle had left Fort McMurray with food from the restaurant he owns. He contributed it all to what Fort McKay residents were cooking in their own kitchens, as well as to kitchens at the community centre, school, daycare and arena, where 800 evacuees ended up sleeping.

In addition to the 2,000 people in the community, about 2,000 more stayed at two nearby oilfield camps.

The First Nation sent people out to the main road to direct traffic further north toward other camps and using its buses to offer rides to anyone who needed one.

"We were stopping people on Highway 63 telling them, 'You can come to McKay. You can come and stay in McKay, but there's also some camps that have vacancies further north'," Arcand said. "And we had maps there for them to show them where those camps were."

As the flames built and the smoke wafted into Fort McKay, oil companies began flying people out. On May 7, Fort McKay was evacuated as well.

'Quite a challenge'

With so many people in the community, "it made it quite a challenge," Arcand said.

Further complicating things was that the head of the fire couldn't be located under the thick smoke — and that some residents of the First Nation didn't want to go.

In the end, about 150 stayed behind. The chief and some councillors stayed with them.

Fort McKay was in constant contact with the province's emergency centre as the fire crept closer.

"We had one more trigger to go before Fort McKay would be called in imminent danger," Arcand said.

"We were building a fire guard and building a system to make sure we could water down the houses if the fire happened to go further north."

The first Nation set up a reception centre at the Wingate Inn in Edmonton for the 450 or so residents who left the community while putting up members at hotels across the city.

"Ninety per cent of the people I talk to say, 'I want to go home. When is it going to be safe for us to go back?' " Arcand said, projecting June 1 as a return date.

The road into the community has since reopened, but the First Nation has not yet completed an environmental assessment and still has to test its water.

While the infrastructure is more or less in tact, emergency services — like medical — have yet to be reinstated.

Early estimates of the cost of the damage to and response effort by Fort McKay are around $2.5 million. That includes transporting both residents and evacuees out of the First Nation as well as finding them places to stay and restoring essential services.