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Northern Alberta residents stay back to help protect community from wildfire

The Delta Hotels Bessborough is photographed through thick smoke from wildfires burning across the Prairies, in Saskatoon, Sask., on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency says it may need extra help to fight fires in the province’s northern region. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Heywood Yu

Mike Mercredi is staying back to protect his northern Alberta community from a nearby wildfire after hundreds of people were forced to evacuate the area.

The volunteer firefighter from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., says he is among a group of community members on standby who have been setting up sprinklers on neighbourhood streets as crews work to contain the flames north of the hamlet.  

“We’re staying behind to fight so we don’t lose our homes,” Mercredi said. “I don’t have to worry about myself — I’ve got experience and I’m already taken care of. My boat is ready, I got gas in there, I got water, I got food, I’ve got a generator, my coffee pot and my dog.”

On Tuesday evening, an evacuation order was issued for Fort Chipewyan, about 730 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, as an out-of-control fire burns about 10 kilometres north of the community. 

Alberta fire officials said Thursday 731 people have registered to evacuate from the hamlet. People have been airlifted or are leaving by boat, and evacuations are to continue as needed. 

Bre Hutchinson, the executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told reporters some community members are staying behind to fight the fire if needed. 

"We work with the local authorities to ensure that they have the appropriate protective equipment and understand when to move," she said.

"We suggest to all Albertans, if there's an evacuation order in place, that they must leave unless their local authority has included them in some form of the response and they have all the right safety protocols and procedures in place to ensure that they can get out when needed."

Mercredi said he’s been told he’ll be given a 30-minute warning to leave in case the fire closes in on the community. 

He said he can use the nearby Lake Athabasca as an escape route if it comes to that point. Boats are already waiting at the launch area, he said. 

“I know if I end up having to leave, there's nothing to defend. We lost. So, I'm here until that point,” he said. “Fear kind of goes out the window when you want to fight, and you don’t use fear to fight because you’ll lose.”

Officials don't believe the fire near the community has grown. Crews are battling 60 active fires across Alberta but the one near Fort Chipewyan remains a top priority. 

Christine Tucker, the Alberta Wildfire information unit manager, said more than 10,000 square kilometres have already burned across the province.  

Tucker said 175 firefighters from Yukon, British Columbia and the United States have arrived to help battle the flames. An additional 215 crew members from South Africa are to arrive Saturday. 

She said about 4,325 people have not been able to return home. 

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, officials there say they may need extra help to fight fires in the northern region.

Steve Roberts, the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency’s vice-president of operations, said Thursday that the province might request additional resources from within the country or internationally should it need to provide relief to local firefighters.

“We have a request out to check for availability of crews,” Roberts said. “We know that those resources might be tight in Canada based on what is happening in Nova Scotia and what is happening in Alberta at this time, but we have some preliminary inquires to see what availability we have.”

As of Thursday, Saskatchewan was battling 20 wildfires in the north. Seven of the fires are not contained and four require crews to protect property.

Many people in northern Saskatchewan haven’t been able to return home due to fires. 

On Wednesday, community members identified as high-risk evacuated La Loche and Clearwater River Dene Nation. High-risk individuals include those with health issues, children under five and pregnant people.

The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency is supporting 81 people from La Loche in Regina, as well as hundreds of others from various communities in Lloydminster and North Battleford.

This is the second time La Loche and Clearwater River Dene Nation have been evacuated this spring. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023.

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press

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