'We have to start again': Family's farmhouse razed in Chuckegg Creek wildfire
The family of nine lost their home to wildfire
In the wake of the massive Chuckegg Creek wildfire in northern Alberta, reporter Paige Parsons spent time in Mackenzie County speaking to farmers about how the disaster affected them. The second part of her reporting will be published Tuesday.
Helen Peters was planting tomatoes when the calls started coming in.
Family members were the first to warn Helen and her husband Herman that the massive Chuckegg Creek wildfire was moving in the direction of their farm at the southern edge of Mackenzie County.
Thousands of northern Alberta residents were evacuated as the fire that burned an area larger than Banff National Park tore through through the province's northwest this spring.
Across the Peace River, 16 homes on the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement were destroyed when the wildfire razed about a third of the settlement's territory.
Helen and Herman Peters are the only Mackenzie County residents who lost their home. It burned down the night of May 29.
"Everybody has his dream. But ours is in the air somewhere," Peters said on July 30, standing with his wife in the sandy rubble that was their family home.
That day in May, they were packing up their RV to go away for the weekend.
Then the phone calls started to come in. Peace officers and firefighters arrived and told them to leave.
"My wife just closed the door on our bedroom slowly," Herman said. "She thought about it: Maybe the last time. It was. We left the yard. I looked back at our house, hoping to see it soon again."
The couple and their six children drove away at about 5:30 p.m. They believe the home they spent years renovating by themselves burned down that night.
Two months later, the wildfire's carnage appears discerning.
The field around the family farm remains green, while groupings of trees are charred. A shop, solar panels, and a few other structures remain untouched. A children's playhouse stands, just across the yard from where the home burned.
Herman cried as he remembered the tears on his daughter's face the day after the fire when he and Helen told their children the house was gone.
"It's hard. You come back ... there's nothing. There's nothing. It's gone. Devastating," he said.
The couple married in 2005 and worked with Helen's parents in their moving business before purchasing their land in an auction in 2016.
Mackenzie County is unusual in that there is still "open land," meaning Crown land can be purchased, cleared, and used for farming.
It takes a few years to get the land ready for growth. This spring, the couple planted what would be their first-ever harvest.
As they worked the land, they also worked on their home. Children's rooms were painted pink, yellow and blue. Big windows and wood-panelled floors and walls made the space bright and warm.
Helen loved the kitchen cabinets they built. There is no power source nearby, so electricity for the entire property comes from four large solar panels.
"It was coming together. It was pretty much finished. We were happy to be in there. Make a life with our children," Herman said.
Unable to return home for weeks, Helen gave birth to the family's seventh child in High Level on June 17. They finally returned to their land on June 21.
The baby is a source of joy, Helen said, but the circumstances have made the loss of their home even more overwhelming.
"Babies take up a lot of room. You need a lot of stuff. There's no crib, there's nothing," she said.
Though it was hard for the parents to return, their children were excited to be back.
"It's amazing how they can adapt. They're really resilient. They're more likely to be optimistic than us. Always look on the bright side," Helen said.
Family members helped set up and furnish a trailer on the property so the parents and children — the oldest is 12 — wouldn't have to squeeze into their RV.
They want to rebuild, but don't know how they'll manage it. The home was nearly paid off but wasn't covered by insurance, Herman said. The couple said they might need help but are reluctant to ask for it.
"You don't feel you're worth it," Herman said. "Someone has to build your house. I don't know where the money should come from."
In the meantime, they will harvest the crops they've planted, and try to hold things together for their children. Helen said even though it's still hard, the shadow created by the fire is ebbing away, a little each day.
"We have to start again. We have to start fresh."