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Albertans answering call to help volunteer, donate for wildfire evacuees

Leonard and Amanda Cardinal loaded a trailer with garbage bags filled with clothes, blankets and pillows, among other items, to help evacuees in High Level, Alta. (Luke Ettinger/CBC - image credit)
Leonard and Amanda Cardinal loaded a trailer with garbage bags filled with clothes, blankets and pillows, among other items, to help evacuees in High Level, Alta. (Luke Ettinger/CBC - image credit)

Jacy Knott is gathering whatever items she can to send wherever people need them.

Thousands of people throughout Alberta have fled their homes to escape wildfires over the past two weeks.

Knott, a Peace River, Alta., resident originally from Duncan's First Nation in northwest Alberta, expects many of the evacuees to have little besides the clothes on their backs, cellphones and a wallet or purse. She said many are likely concerned about how long they'll be away from home — or whether they'll have one when they return.

"I just want to make sure that they don't have to worry about getting these basic necessities," she said.

"[Growing up in] Indigenous culture, we all shared everything. We all helped each other out. … So those are the guidelines that I operate around."

There are 78 wildfires burning across Alberta, including 24 deemed out of control, according to an update from officials on Wednesday.

The fires have forced many communities to issue evacuation orders, and nearly 18,000 people remain displaced. Some evacuees, such as those fleeing Fox Lake and the East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta, have lost homes.

Individual Albertans, organizations and municipalities are responding, stepping up to help wildfire evacuees however they can.

Leonard and Amanda Cardinal, who run the Indigenous organization Thunderbird Inc., have been working tirelessly with their family to gather donations, buy various items and make sandwiches.

On Wednesday, they loaded a trailer with garbage bags filled with clothes, blankets and pillows, among other items. Then, they started an hours-long haul north to the town of High Level, where evacuees have fled from Fox Lake and Rainbow Lake.

"Everything that was happening on social media, I couldn't even watch it," Amanda Cardinal said.

"It was so emotional just to witness what was happening there and the devastation, and how it was affecting so many people."

Luke Ettinger/CBC
Luke Ettinger/CBC

A conference the Cardinals planned to attend had been postponed, so they were free to help how they could, she said.

"We just devoted ourselves, and put our hearts and our spirits into knowing this was the right thing to do with the time that we had."

Meanwhile, in High Level, town officials have been managing the influx of people for a week.

A total of 550 evacuees arrived from Fox Lake, each of whom is staying in High Level, said Jena Clarke, the town's director of community services. Another 500 evacuees came from Rainbow Lake, but Clarke said only 200 of them stayed.

Town officials, with help from nearby Little Red River Cree Nation, businesses and residents, are working to ensure people have what they need, Clarke said.

"You're never 100 per cent prepared for these situations because you don't know when they're going to happen," she said.

"Having those connections within the community of knowing who to call and knowing who you can count on is so important."

Canadian National Railway bought supplies and chartered a plane to fly it to High Level earlier this week. The town has organized programming for children, and televisions are set up in the evacuation centre so people can watch hockey, Clarke said.

The town is collecting donated bathing suits to organize a free swim at the local pool, she added.

"It seems like everything we've been asking for, people come show up at our door," Clarke said.

"The community has been amazing."

Amid the chaos, Albertans also haven't forgotten about the furry, four-legged evacuees.

Impromptu shelters have opened, and people like Nicole Frey are working to get the animals food.

Frey, the founder of the volunteer organization Animal Food Bank, has helped secure pet food during previous natural disasters, including the B.C. floods and fires in 2021.

She said now, she's utilizing her connections and raising money through GoFundMe to gather food for her fellow Albertans and help cover miscellaneous costs like pet fees at hotels.

"There's no single point of contact you can go to to find out where [pet] food is flowing, where pets are going and what is needed," Frey said.

"We're all just kind of scrambling and trying to figure out where there's food, so we've really focused on the areas that … there's a need."

Frey has sent food to the Drayton Valley area, as well as Whitecourt and High Level, among others.