Waiting out the flames: Alberta wildfire evacuees pray for safe return home

Nearly 70 evacuees from the wildfire in northern Alberta are still staying at the K'atl'odeeche First Nation reserve in the Northwest Territories. It's been week since they arrived and they don't know when they'll be able to go home.

Evacuees wait and hope for good news as out-of-control wildfires continue to burn

Roy Salopree is an evacuee from the wildfire burning near Meander River. He's praying for a safe return home. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Roy Salopree beats time with his drum, offering up a prayer song for the people forced from their homes by the wildfires in Alberta.

The elder sits on a twin bed, in a room offered up to him by the K'atl'odeeche First Nation near Hay River, N.W.T. It's the only place he has to stay after he had to leave his home in Meander River, Alta. last week.

He prays for a safe return.

"This is a very old song, my uncle used to sing this song. It's a dance song, it's an Easter song," he said. "It's so special to me. I hope everything goes well back home. I'm looking forward to coming back to my home. I hope things don't get too worse with the fire.

"I'm confident in all the firefighters are doing their jobs, and sure enough we'll get back home."

Salopree is one of nearly 70 people staying at the K'atl'odeeche First Nation after officials in Alberta issued evacuation orders for High Level, Alta. and the Dene Th'a First Nation communities of Bushe River, Chateh and Meander River last week due to the Chuckegg Creek wildfire burning nearby.

He left with little else besides a small suitcase with some clothes and his drum, passed down through his family.

The wildfire, just south of High Level, Alta., has burned more than 130,000 hectares and remains out of control. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Dry, windy conditions have persisted, and there's been no official word on when Salopree or any of the thousands of evacuees can return. As of Tuesday evening, the fire had burned more than 130,000 hectares, according to Alberta Wildfire.

The situation is complicated further by another fire near Steen River, Alta., which on Tuesday prompted officials to close down Highway 1, which connects the Northwest Territories and Alberta.

The people are looking after us pretty good. They're doing a very awesome job looking after us.- Roy Salopree 

Hay River and the K'atl'odeeche reserve were not initially named as official gathering points from people fleeing the Chuckegg Creek wildfire, but Salopree and others like him decided to come north because of family connections to the people living in K'atl'odeeche.

"The people are looking after us pretty good," Salopree said. "They're doing a very awesome job looking after us." 

Regina Denechoan says she's happy with how things have been going in K'atl'odeeche, but she is worried about what will happen if the wildfire reaches her community. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Regina Denechoan, an elder from Chateh, Alta. is also staying in K'at'lodeeche. She has trouble breathing, so she left early, as soon as the smoke rolled into her community.

She's been spending most of her time in the common room at the wellness centre, chatting with her friends in South Slavey.

"I've been eating good and sleeping good," she said. "They're looking after us, it's really nice," she said.

Denechoan does say that she's worried about how things are at home and wonders about her two brothers who have not left.

"I do worry about my people, all those people who might have had their house burned down," she said.

Chief April Martel says people living in K'atl'odeeche have been more than willing to help the evacuees while they are staying. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Since people began arriving last Monday, people living in K'atl'odeeche have stepped up any way they could, and the community is prepared to host the evacuees for as long as they need, explained Chief April Martel.

Some people arrived with nothing but a small pack of clothes, that's how quickly they fled the fire, she said.

"There was one single mother, she had three kids, and she was really hurt, she wasn't expecting that [the fire]," Martel said. "She really had nothing for her three kids … we try to make them feel comfortable here, make them feel like they're at home away from home."

For those like Salopee and Denechoan, that's all they ask as they wait and hope for good news from their homes in northern Alberta.