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‘It’s home’: Alberta’s Métis community rebuilds settlement after wildfire

The East Prairie Métis Settlement lost about 40 homes, with 14 inhabited at the time of the wildfire
Carrol Johnston stands at what was the front entrance of her home before it was destroyed by a wildfire on May 5, in East Prairie Metis Settlement, Alta., Tuesday, July 4, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Carrol Johnston points at flowering peonies in her otherwise charred garden as she walks through her property in a northern Alberta Métis settlement.

“That’s my mommy in heaven telling me, ‘Don’t give up,’” says the 72-year-old, standing next to a hole in the ground where her home in East Prairie once stood.

The pink-flowered plant is one of the few things she has left since the devastating May wildfire.

Johnston, her son and daughter-in-law lost their 1,800-square-foot home and everything in it a day after they evacuated on May 5.

READ MORE: Wildfire destroys homes, police station in community in northern Alberta

“It was all tears, tears, tears,” Johnston, a cook at a local school, recalls of the day she found out her home of 20 years was gone overnight.

Two months later, she says she is ready to move on.

“I’m all teared out now. I know life will get better. I’m sure it will.”

In the last two months, wildfires burned more than 14,000 square kilometres across the province and forced 38,000 Albertans out of their homes.

The East Prairie Métis Settlement lost about 40 homes, of which 14 were inhabited at the time of the wildfire, says Coun. Reva Jaycox.

The councillor says the cost of the damages in the entire community is estimated at about $11.5 million.

The settlement has put a down payment on 14 modular homes to replace the burned ones — contracted out to Nelson Homes, Jandal Homes and AJS Indigenous Housing Solutions, Jaycox says.

“Our priority is rebuilding,” she adds.

She says the new homes would cost about $4 million, mostly funded through their own budgets, donations and Métis Settlement General Council.

However, Jaycox says, there is no defined timeline for when those homes will be ready.

As Johnston waits for her new modular home, she has been fixing her neighbour’s house for a temporary stay. The house has been uninhabited for more than a year and is without a functioning water line.

“The stove works. A nice gentleman gave us a fridge and it works,” she says of their temporary home. “The rest is basically cleaning.”

Johnston has been living in a hotel room with her cat and two dogs in High Prairie, about 35 kilometres northwest of the Métis settlement, since the evacuation.

She says a single room with pets has been tight.

Not all of the 14 families in the community displaced by the wildfire chose to stay in hotels.

Terry Bellerose has been living in an RV with his wife on the grounds of his destroyed home for the past month, making frequent visits to High Prairie for gas to keep the vehicle running.

Bellerose says he was the last person to evacuate and the first one back, only to find his home was gone.

“I had my pump ready, my cistern was on, but I was told to leave,” Bellerose says of the day the wildfire approached.

He says his home could have been spared if he was allowed to stay back to protect it and if crews responded earlier when the fires were farther away.

In 2019, the Alberta government cut a program of elite firefighters who are trained to rappel from helicopters to get at wildfires while they still only covered a few hectares. That program once had 63 rapattack firefighters stationed around the province and cutting it was expected to save the government $1.4 million.

Bellerose’s ranch-style home is gone but he continues to maintain his land, mowing the lush grass and planting new rows of bushes as he waits for the modular home.

“It was a family gathering spot. They came in for dinners, holidays and barbecues,” he says of his old home. “It’s hard to replace all that. I’m left to just memories.”

Even with a devastating wildfire, people of the Métis settlement say the land is their home and will remain so.

Mallory Bigcharles, a 24-year-old mother of four, stands on the front deck of her house surrounded by burned forest and fallen trees.

She and her husband moved into their new home a month before the wildfire — and they were among the lucky ones.

“When we were in the hotel evacuated, we were told that our house was gone. Then we came back and it was still here.”

They were surprised but not scared to go back to living in East Prairie weeks later —- even when thick clouds of smoke remained and the ground smouldered.

“I grew up here my whole life,” Bigcharles says. “It’s my home.”

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press

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