First Nation reserves helping Fort McMurray evacuees


[A Canadian Joint Operations Command aerial photo shows wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta., in this image posted on Twitter on May 5, 2016. Courtesy CF Operations/Handout via REUTERS]

First Nation reserves across Alberta are collecting donations and welcoming in evacuees from Fort McMurray after all residents were forced to leave the city on Tuesday due to a wildfire.

Fort McKay, about 65 kilometres north of the devastated area, has recently taken in 5,000-7,000 people fleeing the area. The reserve opened up its day care centre, elders centre, school and community centre. It also has campgrounds that it regularly rents to temporary oilsands workers, which has housed 3,000 people for free in the last few days.

“We’re in the camp business so we know how to house and feed people,” chief Jim Boucher tells Yahoo Canada News. “When you have a huge influx like that, you get into high gear and you help out as much as you can.”

He says there’s a doctor in the community, which sits on 20,234 hectares of land, as well as medication, diapers and food the First Nation community can dispense if needed.

“We will remain here, we will keep the camps open and we will take care of as many people as we can,” Boucher says, acknowledging that the last week has been unquestionably emotional for both evacuees and band members.

“Some people have gotten out with nothing or very little, so there’s a lot of emotions in our community,” he says. “People are trying to be positive and upbeat and trying to get through this terrible time.”

[Fort McKay First Nation’s band hall tepee. PHOTO: Fort McKay First Nation]

Dozens of flights from the nearby oilsands facilities Canadian Natural Resources, Fort Hill and Shell Albian Village are transporting people from the area, since the roads are closed down.

Blanche Hals is an administrative assistant with Whitefish Lake First Nations, about three hours’ drive south of Fort McMurray. She says some of their members have homes in the area and have returned to the reserve.

“They came back to stay with family but they’ve lost everything,” she tells Yahoo Canada News. “The community is coming together to help them out.”

The reserve has also opened its lake and camping areas to evacuees with trailers or RVs.

Some community members have opened their doors to take people in, but Hals couldn’t give an exact number. Others have started collecting donations to bring to reserves that are offering help.

She says about 20 families have arrived at Beaver Lake, about an hour north of Whitefish.

“They’re taking truckloads wherever it’s needed,” she says. “Not everyone has vehicles but they do have things to donate so they’re going around picking up stuff.”