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Hundreds of Alberta evacuees still in hotels, temporary accommodations after 2023 wildfires

Wildfires forced thousands of Albertans to temporarily leave their homes this spring, but hundreds of residents are still grappling with the effects of last year’s fires, having no homes yet to return to.

The northern Alberta community of Fox Lake was the hardest hit during last year’s wildfire season, losing more than 200 structures, including 100 homes, a grocery store, an RCMP detachment and a water treatment plant. 

Fox Lake is a remote community that lies on the south side of the Peace River, about 550 kilometres north of Edmonton.

It’s home to the majority of members of the Little Red River Cree Nation. About 4,000 residents fled Fox Lake in early May of last year as the Paskwa fire approached.

More than a year later, many residents have returned to Fox Lake but hundreds are still living elsewhere.

According to Indigenous Services Canada, which received data from the Little Red River Cree Nation, there were approximately 525 long-term evacuees from Fox Lake as of May 20. Nearly 300 were living in hotels in High Level and Fort Vermilion, several dozen were staying in rentals, about 150 were living in camps and 80 were living in tiny homes in Fox Lake, she said.

“They had no place to return to, so they stayed here, their children go to school here and they’ve become part of our community,” said Crystal McAteer, High Level’s mayor.

Last year, wildfire also claimed dozens of homes in Yellowhead County, west of Edmonton, and dozens of homes on East Prairie Métis Settlement and on Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, northwest of Edmonton.

Ray Supernault, the chair of the East Prairie Métis Settlement, said the community received funding from the province to rebuild the 14 homes that had been occupied immediately preceding the fire. He said residents moved into new modular homes before Christmas. 

Goulet said about 25 Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation members are still staying in hotels in northern Alberta and 75 are living in rentals.

Smoke billows from a massive, angry red fire on the other side of a lake.
A large out-of-control wildfire burning near the northern Alberta community of Fox Lake forced thousands of people out of their homes last May. (Submitted by Bridgette Loonskin)

Life in a hotel

Nancy Blesse, a long-term evacuee from Fox Lake, said losing her home last year was a horrifying experience.

“Nothing I ever dreamed of going through,” she told CBC News in late April.

The former student liaison pivoted to working as a security guard for a hotel in High Level and has been staying at the Flamingo Inn, where evacuees occupy about a dozen rooms. 

Blesse said hotel staff have bent over backwards to accommodate evacuees, and people have been kind to her, but a hotel room isn’t home.

She has been travelling back and forth between High Level and Fox Lake and is waiting for the power in her temporary tiny home to be hooked up.

“It’ll be tough trying to get back on our feet but it’s something we’re looking forward to,” she said.

A woman stands outside.
Fox Lake evacuee Nancy Blesse has been living in a hotel room in High Level for more than a year. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC)

The Flamingo Inn’s owner and manager, Tyceer Abou Moustafa, said hotel staff have gotten to know the evacuees’ over the past year, recognizing their voices over the phone and anticipating their meal orders.

Spencer Lewis and Koaltyn Kenney, who co-manage the High ‘n Dry Cleaners in High Level, said Fox Lake evacuees still regularly come in to do their laundry. 

“I couldn’t imagine the stuff that they’ve been through, but a lot of them still have a smile on their face and they’re still friendly,” Lewis said.

Rebuilding in progress

Alberta provides funding to municipalities and Métis settlements affected by wildfires but the federal government leads recovery efforts on reserves.

Goulet, the spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said ISC has provided more than $380 million to First Nations in Alberta for response and recovery activities related to last year’s wildfire season.

She said the Little Red River Cree Nation received money through the Emergency Management Assistance Program and ISC continues to provide support for long-term evacuees’ meals, accommodation, personal contents and other losses.

The recovery is well underway in Fox Lake, but many destroyed homes and buildings have yet to be rebuilt.

Goulet said the nursing station in the community is fully restored from smoke damage. 

Drinking water advisories have been lifted.

Team members pose for a group photo.
Employees of the North West Company work at a temporary store that was set up in Fox Lake. (Submitted by Dave Adamson)

The North West Company opened a temporary grocery store in February and plans to build a bigger one, according to Dave Adamson, the company’s director of sales and operations. 

Police officers are working out of a trailer until a new detachment is built, RCMP Const. Kristen Marson said.

The Trade Winds to Success Training Society donated four studio homes to the Little Red River Cree Nation earlier this year.

A crane is attached to a home.
The Trade Winds to Success Society delivered four tiny homes to Fox Lake in March 2024. (Submitted by Shannon McCarthy)

Wendell Pleasant, the deputy director of emergency management for the Little Red River Cree Nation, said there are 21 new homes almost ready to live in and another 20 that will be under construction right away. Finishing the rebuild could take three years, he said.

Pleasant said work on the homes started in the fall but the community ran into trouble bringing in equipment and housing materials. 

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Since no roads lead directly to Fox Lake, most goods arrive in the community by barge or ice road in the winter, but warm weather and water fluctuations in the river affect those transportation routes.

Ryan Tyndall with Indigenous Services Canada said water released from a BC Hydro dam hindered the community’s ability to use their ice bridges.

“We are working very closely with the community to develop immediate solutions to overcome challenges and support them in their rebuilding and recovery efforts following the wildfires,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Paula Simons, who told CBC News she has been in touch with the chief and council since the fall, brought up the same issue in the senate’s question period in April.

Spokesperson Mike Kellett said BC Hydro does not release warm brackish water from any of its reservoirs and drought may make certain ice bridges more susceptible to flow fluctuations.

State of local emergency

More recently, the Little Red River Cree Nation has declared a state of local emergency, saying in a May 16 resolution that communities’ well-being and safety were at “dire risk” because of gang activity, drugs, alcohol, illegal use of firearms, assaults, murders and suicides.

The resolution also said displacement and trauma resulting from last year’s wildfire increased the seriousness of these problems.

“It isn’t just that people are forced to live in motels, it’s that the entire community has sort of been knocked off its moorings,” Simons said. 

Timothy Clark, who owns Willow Springs Strategic Solutions and worked on a research project about rebuilding resilient communities in the wake of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, said evacuations can lead to the breakdown of informal support networks, since many residents remain elsewhere, and disasters can exacerbate pre-existing problems in communities.

He said sustained long-term investment in Indigenous communities is needed. 

“If you don’t resolve those underlying issues, then ultimately you’re going to be swimming upstream every time this happens,” he said.

Firefighters fight a fire.
Firefighters work on the Paskwa Wildfire, near Fox Lake, Alta. in February 2024. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Lucille Laboucan, who lives in Fox Lake, said the evacuation has been hard on residents, some of whom had never left the community before and some of whom only speak Cree, or speak English as their second language.

She said some evacuees have been discriminated against in High Level and students’ lives have been uprooted. 

Therapists have been helping people with PTSD, she said, but they don’t speak Cree.

She said ceremonies, gatherings, talking circles and workshops will help community members heal, but expressing emotions is very hard for some people to do.

Still, she said, the community will recover.

“I always have hope for a better outcome — a stronger Fox Lake,” she said.

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