Indigenous communities seek to recover from devastating wildfires

When members of her community returned to their homes in the East Prairie Métis Settlement, Tamara Payou stayed at a hotel in High Prairie, Alta., waiting.

Earlier this month, a wildfire tore through her Indigenous community, burning down buildings, a bridge, destroying trees and leaving a trail of ash.

The house the Payou family used to live in, along with a brand new trailer they moved into this January—both uninsured—had burned down. And since the fire broke out, three of their five dogs have gone missing.

Payou also worries about her brother, one of the firefighters battling hot spots in the community. She said that one day, he was chopping down a tree when it suddenly fell on him, leaving him unconscious and severely injured. His house also burned down.

Now, Payou says she’s taking things in “day after day”.

She is awaiting word from council members and other community officials when she, her husband Cory Bellerose and their 14-year-old son, along with her brother and his family, will be able to film back to their community. The evacuation order there was downgraded from warning to warning last Wednesday.

In a phone interview, Payou told in a phone interview: “Others had to go home because of the electricity and everything was hooked up to their places.

“We don’t go home because we don’t have a home to go back to.”

The East Prairie Métis Settlement is one of a number of indigenous communities hit hard by the recent wildfires in Alberta. As wildfire season rages, residents and community officials are scouring the rubble, pondering how they will recover from all the losses.

“We estimated a little over $7 million to rebuild our community with everything we needed to do — just (for) the infrastructure on the bridge and the housing,” said Raymond Supernault, president of East Prairie Métis settlement, told in a phone interview.

“It’s crazy how much damage there is and how much it costs to replace each house.”


Located about 165 kilometers east of Grande Prairie, Alta, the East Prairie Métis Settlement has a population of about 300. Supernault said the fire destroyed at least 14 inhabited homes in the community, as well as sheds, sheds and multiple vehicles.

Some homes have belonged to residents for decades, he added, and are home to their most cherished mementos.

“The fire consumed everything in its path,” Supernault said.

“Right now, a lot of people are shocked to come back to see our community. They are looking at burned houses that are no more. These are our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones who have lost so many homes.”

The focus of the East Prairie Métis Settlement today is rebuilding—a process that Supernault calculates will take at least a year. He said the community plans to do it all on its own if needed.

“We will rebuild… and do what needs to be done, because right now, we are just waiting. We’re always waiting for people to say, ‘Hey, we can help you with this,'” said Supernault.

About 180 kilometers east of High Level, Alta., Fox Lake, one of three Woodland Cree communities in the Little Red River Cree Nation, is also experiencing similar pain.

As of Tuesday, an evacuation order remains in place for Fox Lake as the fire — estimated to cover more than 85,000 hectares — is still burning out of control in the community. To date, the community has lost more than 300 structures, including at least 110 homes, to the fire.

Darryel Sowan, the Little Red River Cree Nation’s emergency management communications coordinator, said the 3,000-member community is now spread between an arena complex at High Level, a recreation center in Fort Vermilion. , Alta., Native Senior Friendship Center and a few hotels.

Sowan said officials from the Little Red River Cree Nation are working to set up a camp they hope will move residents into while they wait for the fires to subside.

The eastern side of the Paskwa fire (HWF030) burning in the Alberta Senior Forest Region in a handout photo May 9, 2023. REPORT CANADA/HO-Government of the Alberta Fire Service, *TIN USE REQUIRED* OR

He told in a phone interview: “We’re trying as hard and as fast as we can to get them out of the cribs and mats on the gym floor and into the pods. suitable bed.

Sowan said the cost to rebuild the Fox Lake community, which has no year-round access, would be “significant.” He noted that the housing situation in Fox Lake had been “dire” before the fire destroyed dozens of homes, with some buildings accommodating 20 people.

“Fox Lake can only be reached by barge. It will be very difficult to rebuild this summer, because how can we get past the houses? The barge can only carry so much, it is impossible to load the house on the barge and move it,” he said.

“The sheriff said… he didn’t want to rebuild Fox Lake the way it was – he wanted to build Fox Lake the way it should be. That is what we will try and do.”

Sowan said Little Red River Cree Nation is also paying attention to the situation in Garden River.

“The situation is very stressful as Garden River currently has a 24-hour evacuation notice due to (the Paskwa fire) being nearby,” he explained, adding that the fire was less than seven kilometers away from the community.

In a 2022 report, Health Canada notes that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada are “particularly sensitive” to the effects of climate change because they tend to live in geographic regions. have severe weather conditions and have a close relationship with and dependence on the environment. The report notes that this may exacerbate existing health and socioeconomic inequalities in their communities.


In an emailed statement, the Office of the Minister of Indigenous Services said the federal government is working to support Indigenous communities impacted by the wildfires.

“Across the country, First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities are facing the effects of wildfires. Climate change means that extreme weather events have become more frequent, more severe and more destructive,” the statement read.

“This is why our government is investing (in) meaningful climate action – and is working with Indigenous communities to get the support they need, including support First Nations communities through the Emergency Management Assistance Program (EMAP).”

Thick smoke from the Fox Lake fire can be seen from the barge docked at Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta. (Source: Jarvis Nanooch)

EMAP helps Indigenous communities access emergency assistance services. It also provides funding to provinces, territories and NGOs to support emergency management in place.

As of Monday, the Alberta government said it had more than 2,800 staff members working on the province’s wildfire response, including support from partner agencies across Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Zealand, as well as the Canadian Armed Forces.

Among other supports, the province is also providing one-time emergency financial assistance to those displaced by the bushfires and has processed more than 16,400 applications to date.


Meanwhile, Supernault credits indigenous firefighters from his community and surrounding communities who are working day in and day out to prevent further devastation.

“These guys have been trained, they’ve been doing it all their lives,” he said.

One positive thing that has come from the fires, he said, is that community members have rallied together.

Supernault said: “They came together and helped each other and it was great to see that.

“That’s what a community is supposed to be, isn’t it? Unite, help each other.”

Many crowdfunding sites have been set up to assist people in the East Prairie Métis Settlement, Fox Lake and other communities affected by the bushfires.

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