When a massive forest fire was approaching High Level and area early last week, some people headed north for safety.
They included members of Dene Tha’ First Nation from the communities of Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh.
Most of them found refuge on the Hay River Reserve.
“We evacuated this way because we have some family here,” said Chantelle Kazonay, who co-ordinated the stay for the 55 men, women and children, ranging in age from infants to Elders in their 80s.
Kazonay said, while they are safe, she and the other evacuees worry about their families and their homes.
“I have a younger brother in Chateh still,” she said on May 24. “They were supposed to come out, but the fire jumped the road. So they had to turn back.”
As of May 24, Kazonay was not aware of fire damaging any property or homes in the three communities of Dene Tha’ First Nation. Bushe River is only five kilometres east of High Level, Chateh is a 45-minute drive to the west, and Meander River is about 70 kilometres to the north.
Kazonay said the fire was just a kilometre away from Bushe River.
She noted the evacuees also headed north because they did not want to be in an unfamiliar town or travel eight hours or more to the south.
“We’d be more at home here,” she said.
Most were welcomed into the Dene Wellness and Development Centre by K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN), while about four families stayed with relatives on the reserve.
The former Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre can accommodate 36 people, and it was full of evacuees.
The 55 evacuees from Dene Tha’ First Nation also included nine teachers from Chateh. They are not members of the band and stayed in Hay River.
Some band members living in High Level also made the journey north, along with an unknown number of other residents of the town.
Kazonay was happy with the welcome on the Hay River Reserve.
“We knew how good of a people they are,” she said of KFN members. “We didn’t expect to get help. We thought, ‘OK, we’ll go stay with the family that we have over here.'”
She added being able to stay at the wellness centre was more than what they hoped for or expected.
Most of the evacuees arrived on May 20 and May 21, and they were not sure when they would return home as of late last week. It was possible they may have returned on May 27.
“We don’t know. We’re just playing it by ear,” said Kazonay late last week.
One of the other evacuees was her sister Chelsea Kazonay, along with her three young sons.
“We know people out here and I think it’s a lot safer,” said Chelsea Kazonay, who is originally from Chateh, but now lives in High Level.
She explained that she has heard from people who headed south that conditions are overcrowded.
“We’re hearing a lot of stories,” she said. “It’s comfy here. We have our own beds, our own bathrooms. We provide our own meals.”
While she is happy with the welcome on the Hay River Reserve, Chelsea Kazonay said she just wants to go home and feels homesick.
“I do feel lost. Sometimes I feel out of place,” she said. “I’m not really worried about myself, it’s just my kids. If they’re comfortable. How they’re feeling.”
Chelsea Kazonay said she couldn’t stay in High Level, which was evacuated on May 20, because of concern for her children, even though some other people stayed.
“I wouldn’t risk it with my kids,” she said. “If it was myself, I’d probably stay back and help.”
Catherine Heron, the band manager with KFN, also noted that a lot of the evacuees from Alberta have family connections to the Hay River Reserve, and those relatives and the band readily opened up their doors.
“The community is quite happy to do that,” said Heron. “It’s just fortunate that we do have the facility to accommodate everyone, and having the old treatment centre back in our possession has been a great asset for KFN.”
As of May 25, evacuation orders remained in effect in High Level and for Dene Tha’ First Nation.
The Chuckegg Creek Fire was approximately three km southwest of High Level.
The fire was approximately 99,250 hectares in size.