'The devil': Métis settlement looks to rebuild from wildfire as hot weather to return

·3 min read

A Métis settlement devastated by an out-of-control blaze remains at risk as hot and dry conditions in Alberta's forecast threaten to worsen an already intense wildfire season.

"That fire, I call it the devil. I've never seen a fire like that in my life," said Raymond Supernault, chair of the East Prairie Métis Settlement.

"I never seen a fire like that come that quick and fast and go through the settlement and burn everything in its sight."

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Driving through the settlement around 165 kilometres east of Grande Prairie, the ground is charred black, electrical poles look like matchsticks and 14 homes were consumed by the inferno.

Around 80 per cent of the community was touched by the blaze in some way or another. It's an overwhelming loss for the community of around 300, Supernault said.

Family pictures, heirlooms and important history for the Métis families vanished in ash. A bridge needed by some families to return home was also destroyed.

The settlement is not out of the woods yet. Temperatures in the high 20s and low to mid-30s are expected in some areas of the province over the coming days, with daytime highs soaring up to 15 degrees above normal.

"That's going to be hot. The fires will start rising again," Supernault said. "That's the scary part."

There were 78 active wildfires in the province as of Friday night, including 22 out of control. About 16,000 people from several other communities in central and northern Alberta remained out of their homes.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was in Grande Prairie surveying the fire zone and meeting with local officials and Indigenous leaders.

About 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces are set to be deployed to help with the blazes over the next few days. About 100 of those soldiers will be sent to the area around Grand Prairie and the settlement.

The help will be a reprieve for community members after the fire rapidly tore through the East Prairie Métis Settlement a week ago.

People were given an hour to flee. Supernault said within seven hours, the community was destroyed.

A provincial state of emergency was put in place the following day.

"I never thought I'd have to see something like this in my lifetime," Supernault said

Some community members stayed behind to save what they could. The settlement has a long history of firefighting. Supernault said residents are also slashers, equipment operators and truck drivers with skills to save as many homes as possible.

"We always fought fire growing up, that used to be our source of work," said Brad Desjarlais, who stayed behind to help.

The spruce, muskeg, poplar trees and dry grass lit up quickly as locals did what they could on the ground to keep the flames away from homes, Desjarlais explained.

A small amount of rain this week helped their efforts, but he said hot spots remain.

The Alberta government announced it will join the federal government in a donation-matching program with the Canadian Red Cross that would see every $1 donated become $3.

Supernault said it's difficult for the Métis settlement to navigate jurisdictional issues between the province and federal government when it comes to getting help and funding. They will need to rebuild homes, put up power poles and repair the bridge — all with a significant price tag.

East Prairie is one of eight Métis settlements in the province. It is land-based and self-governing, but not the same as a First Nation reserve.

Elders have often talked about how hard it was when they first came to the area, Supernault said. They were called "roadside people" and lived in tar shacks.

Their forbearers made their permanent home on this land in the 1930s, Supernault said.

"They built it for us and we have to make sure we take care of it," Supernault said.

"No matter how burnt it is, the green grass is going to come back. the houses will come back."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press

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