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NWT evacuees taking refuge in St. Albert hotels

“When I saw that smoke I was like ‘I'm not dying here, I am not dying here, I will die anywhere but here.’”
Elizabeth Eaton stands beside her vehicle in the Best Western Hotel parking lot in St. Albert on Wednesday. JACK FARRELL/St. Albert Gazette

Residents of multiple municipalities in the Northwest Territories are taking refuge in St. Albert hotels after being evacuated from their homes due to a string of severe, and ongoing, wildfires over the last few days.

Elizabeth Eaton and her 12-year-old daughter are two of a few hundred people who came to St. Albert at the direction of the territorial government after first being sent to Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray. On Tuesday the territorial government asked those in Grande Prairie with their own transportation to head to St. Albert as the municipality was reaching capacity for evacuees. St. Albert was made the official reception site in Alberta for evacuees until Wednesday night when Leduc took over the job. 

Eaton, who arrived with her daughter in St. Albert on Tuesday, said she left her home in Hay River early Sunday, before the town issued its evacuation order that evening.

“I actually happened to be camping the night before, so I was out in that area and I spotted the smoke and it gave me an eerie feeling,” Eaton explained. “We headed back into town, got some gas, packed up because we had experiences of being evacuated before, and talked to a few friends and they were feeling the same.”

“I was basically in my vehicle leaving when the evacuation sounded.”

Eaton said the family went to Grande Prairie that evening and were able to get a hotel for two nights before being told to head to St. Albert on Tuesday.

“It's been great, we've had lots of help and support,” she said, adding that her family actually lived in St. Albert for a year during the pandemic. 

The family's home in Hay River hasn't been damaged, Eaton said, but she heard from a co-worker who called the Hamlet of Enterprise home that their house had been destroyed.

Enterprise, which is located about 40 kilometres away from Hay River, is “90 per cent gone,” Mayor Michael St Amour told the CBC on Tuesday.

“My property is, so far, good, but I'll still be directly hit with a lot of sadness around me,” Eaton said. “I'll just be there for everybody ready to help and support in any way I can.”

This isn't the first time the Eatons have had to evacuate due to wildfires this summer, as they were away from their home for 11 days after a fire caused significant damage in K’atl’odeeche First Nation in May. The nation is just on the eastern side of the Hay River, which is the town's namesake and eastern border.

“It's been a wild experience all around, to be honest,” Eaton said of being evacuated again. “It's just a wild devastating experience and the craziest thing is just how fast it happened.”

“When I saw that smoke I was like ‘I'm not dying here, I am not dying here, I will die anywhere but here.’”

Starting on Monday Aug. 14 St. Albert was made the official reception centre in Alberta for those fleeing the fires in the north, said Connie Smigielski, emergency social services director with the City of St. Albert. As of Wednesday morning, Aug. 16, the city had received 550 evacuees and Smigielski said they were expecting a few hundred more that day. By Wednesday evening the city closed the reception centre as they had reached capacity. 

Those arriving in the city were being registered and some 40 city staff and 15 volunteers helped connect them with hotel rooms in St. Albert and Edmonton, Smigielski said. 

"Almost everybody has pets too. So you're trying to find accommodations where people can take their pets and the hotels have been amazing."

The city was chosen in part because of its proximity to the northern communities, Smigielski said. The evacuees were first going to Grande Prairie, however, a music festival in town put the city at capacity and evacuees had to continue south to St. Albert. 

"I'm proud to say we have a really robust emergency services team and can set up and be ready to bring on evacuees in an emergency in a matter of a couple of hours," Smigielski said, adding the city trains year-round to be able to provide support during big emergencies.

It's a very sad time for the evacuees who are arriving, Smigielski said, and they don't know what they are going back to. 

"For us, it's about getting them here giving them a calm environment, getting them registered so that they can get some financial support, and getting them launched as quickly as possible to give them any kind of resemblance of a home environment," Smigielski said. 

As of Wednesday afternoon the municipalities of Hay River, K’atl’odeeche First Nation, Fort Smith, Enterprise, and Jean Marie River were all under total evacuation orders, while parts of the Territories' capital city Yellowknife had also been issued evacuation orders as a wildfire continues to move closer to the city limit.

By 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday a fire was 17 kilometres away from Yellowknife. 

Cabin Radio, an independent radio and online news organization based in Yellowknife, reported on Tuesday that more than 20 per cent of the NWT population had been affected by evacuation orders. 

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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