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How volunteers are helping Hay River highrise fire evacuees

A small army of volunteers and government workers have helped protect, house, feed and clothe more than 120 adults and children facing an uncertain future after the March 15 fire at the MacKenzie Place highrise in Hay River, N.W.T.

Volunteers help protect, house, feed, clothe more than 120 people after fire in Hay River, N.W.T.

Catherine Heron, centre, chief executive officer of the K’atl’odeeche First Nation Reserve, with Brenda Lamalice, left, and Susan Salopree. The only official emergency shelter for evacuees has been the recently reopened Dene Wellness Centre. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

A small army of volunteers and government workers have helped protect, house, feed and clothe more than 120 adults and children facing an uncertain future after the fire at the MacKenzie Place apartment highrise in Hay River, N.W.T.

The last two weeks have seen an outpouring of hot meals, bedding, toiletries, winter boots and school supplies for evacuees, who have had only 15 minutes of emergency access to their units since the March 15 fire.

The building remains closed for safety reasons. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

While landlord Harry Satdeo, who owns the 17-storey highrise, has been absent throughout this crisis (and no longer lives in town), dozens of community members have stepped up to help. 

Thrift store manager Fred Planidin, left, and Minister Francis Delaplain of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church unload donations. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Bags of clothing

Every day, about 20 bags arrive stuffed with winter coats, boots, and winter gloves — some still with tags on — at Georgina's Place, the Anglican church's thrift shop. Less frequently but equally appreciated are boxes of dishes, pots and household items.

"The amount of people who have pulled together and donated has been overwhelming. It makes me proud to be a Hay River-ite," said thrift store manager Fred Planidin.

The thrift shop has doubled its hours to distribute the donations.

"It is more than a place to get clothes. It is a place that is sustained by the giving of the community for the needs of the community," said Anglican Minister Francis Delaplain.

With no date in sight on when tenants will return to their units — if ever — Delaplain hopes the generosity continues.

"My sense is there's a long-term need for the community to continue to support these people," Delaplain said.

Kaylynne Mateus is the manager of support services for the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Food and friendship

The Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre in Hay River was the banquet hall for evacuees for eight days. Hot meals included pancakes and eggs for breakfast and ham and scalloped potatoes for dinner.

Kaylynne Mateus, manager of support services for the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, and her staff cooked and served the meals.

"We definitely did not turn anyone away, even if we knew they did not live in the highrise," Mateus said of the 30 to 70 people they served every day.

Not only was the centre a dining hall, but a place where babies could be bumped on knees and children could play tag.

"Our hope is that it provided some sense of community and comfort, just having a space for people to come together and have their coffee in the morning and talk with people who went through a similar situation," Mateus said.

Donated toiletries for Hay River highrise fire evacuees. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Providing shelter, building bridges

As of this week, the only official emergency shelter for evacuees is the recently reopened Dene Wellness Centre, a former treatment centre with over a dozen private rooms on the K'atl'odeeche First Nation reserve near Hay River.

Regular programming is temporarily on hold to accommodate up to 25 people, many of them families in need of a place to eat, sleep and collect their thoughts.

"We are providing a safe place for them to come to and offer them comfort," said Catherine Heron, chief executive officer of the K'atl'odeeche First Nation Reserve.

Heron says providing short-term housing and meals, to both band members and non-band members, is about working collaboratively with community partners.

Hay River deputy fire chief Trent Atwell says crews rushed to the fire on March 15. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

First responders

Deputy fire chief Trent Atwell was battling one of the town's biggest dump fires when the call came in that an 11th-floor apartment unit at the highrise was burning.

The veteran on-call firefighter couldn't leave his post at the dump, so he sent his crew to the highrise, where a handful of firefighters stormed 11 flights of stairs and contained the fire within a couple hours.

No one was injured but Atwell, who was on his days off from working at the Ekati mine, says the risk of death or injury for emergency responders is ever-present.

"You look at my locker and you see these pictures of my family," he said from the Hay River fire station.

"I've got a new grandson and family on my mind, whether it's a fire or an MVA [motor vehicle accident] or highway rescue. But when the time comes, you just have to focus on your own safety and the people you're working with."

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