An effort to evacuate an isolated northeastern Alberta community threatened by wildfire is slowly nearing completion as the fight against the flames escalates.
About 1,000 people who live in Fort Chipewyan, 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, were told Tuesday to leave their homes but getting everyone out has been hampered by the community’s remote location.
In the summer months, after the ice road melts, the hamlet is accessible only by plane or boat.
The evacuation is being done in stages by air and by river. Some people are being flown out to Fort McMurray. Others are travelling by boat, south along the Athabasca River.
In a post to Facebook Wednesday at 2 p.m., the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo urged all remaining residents to leave immediately.
“Conditions are changing very quickly and there is a risk planes may not be able to land or fly safely anymore,” the advisory said. “Anyone in Fort Chipewyan must evacuate while there are still flights available.”
In a separate update to social media on Wednesday, Kendrick Cardinal, president of the Fort Chipewyan Métis local, said an increasing number of people have made their way to safety.
The evacuation of the community is around 85 per cent complete, he said.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re now struggling to fill the planes, which is a good sign,” Cardinal said.
He said the fire continues to pose a threat amid dry conditions and escalating winds.
Cardinal said he has heard reports that the fire is encroaching closer to Allison Bay, the community closest to the fire’s edge. He said sprinklers are being installed and fire guards are being established, and more firefighters are moving in.
He urged residents to abide the evacuation order and register as required so that leadership knows they made it out.
“Our No. 1 mission is to make sure no one is left behind and everyone is accounted for.”
The regional municipality, Mikisew Cree First Nation, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation issued the joint evacuation order and are working together to co-ordinate a response.
In an update just after 2 p.m. Wednesday, the leaders of the three nations said the last plane would be leaving at 4 p.m. with any remaining residents expected to join in the firefighting effort.
Sparked by lightning
The fire was first spotted on Sunday and is believed to have been sparked by lightning. It has already burned an estimated 8,600 hectares, according to the Alberta wildfire status dashboard.
As of Wednesday, the fire is burning about 10 kilometres from Fort Chipewyan.
Officials with Alberta Wildfire said additional crews were being dispatched to the front lines Wednesday. The growth since Tuesday — when the fire was estimated at 3,000 hectares — was mostly northeast of the community. Winds blowing to the northeast were expected to continue.
Fort Chipewyan resident Mike Mercredi, a member of the ACFN, has been helping with the evacuation and said he’s feeling exhausted. Some cabins burned Tuesday night, he said.
He said there has been a lot of panic.
“Everyone’s phones were going off and people were all of a sudden rushing to try to get evacuated,” he said Wednesday.
He saw planes, some of them small nine-seaters, flying in and out all day.
Mercredi’s family were taken to Fort McMurray and later made their way to Edmonton. He remains at home with his boat ready in the yard.
“As soon as [the fire] gets too close, I’ll be putting it in the water and going to my cabin.”
Residents urged to remain calm
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation urged residents to remain calm and said more air transport was en route to the community.
Adam said as of noon Wednesday, about 800 people had been moved out. Anyone remaining needs to register at the community’s arena and make arrangements to leave. Residents should be prepared to be out of their homes for at least a week, he said.
“If you have arranged to say behind to help in the firefighting efforts, you can remain in Fort Chipewyan. You will be deployed in the coming days. But everyone else is it mandatory that you head to Archie Simpson Arena now.”
The evacuation effort has involved all levels of government, provincial firefighters, the military, and grassroots efforts to support evacuees. The fire is a top priority in Alberta’s ongoing battle against wildfires.
Adam said private and corporate charters will be used to get residents to Fort McMurray.
The Canadian Armed Forces said a Hercules aircraft is supporting the evacuation. Canadian Rangers from 4 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group already living in the community were also deployed to assist.
WestJet said it is operating rescue flights between Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray. One flight has been completed and up to two more are planned for Wedneday afternoon, the airline said.
Billy-Joe Tuccaro, chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, said community leaders and emergency officials are pulling together to get everyone out.
“I am very grateful,” Tuccaro said in a video posted to social media. “Without everybody’s help, we wouldn’t have had the success we did.”
Tuccaro said he remains hopeful the community can be protected.
Samuel McDonald, 22, a youth co-ordinator at Fort Chipewyan Community High School, hopes to join the front lines.
He said he was packing up some essentials to leave on Tuesday when he got word that volunteers were needed.
He said he left town briefly on Wednesday to travel to his grandfather’s cabin, about 10 kilometres north of Fort Chip. The cabin had burned to the ground.
Fort Chip has emptied out, he said; a handful of “stubborn elders” and those helping to fight the flames are the only people who remain.
“We’re helping each other out,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
As of Wednesday, 67 wildfires are burning across Alberta. Of the 66 burning inside the province’s forest protection areas, 18 are burning out of control.