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Edmonton area offering support for hundreds fleeing N.W.T. wildfires

A sign directs wildfire evacuees from the Northwest Territories to parking at St. Albert's Servus Place, where a reception centre was set up on Aug. 14, 2023. A sign directs wildfire evacuees from the Northwest Territories to parking at St. Albert's Servus Place, where a reception centre was set up on Aug. 14, 2023.
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By Sunday at 3 p.m., the sky over Fort Smith, N.W.T., was "darker than midnight," resident Richard Funk says.  

"It was really kind of scary. Everywhere you looked, there was a red ring right around the whole town."

His community of about 2,200 sits just north of the Northwest Territories-Alberta boundary. 

Over the last week, the risk of nearby wildfires leaped up. Evacuations were eventually ordered for Fort Smith, as well as Enterprise, Jean Marie River and Hay River to the north. 

"It was very unreal for most of us at first. We knew there was fires out there, but right up until the day before we had to leave, I think, we were all very optimistic that with all of the equipment and people that were there, that they were going to stave it off," Funk told CTV News Edmonton in an interview on Tuesday in St. Albert. 

"There's been a fire ban for the majority of this spring and summer, but nobody really thought at the time, 'OK, this is going to hit the extremes that it has and we're going to need to move quickly.' And nobody expected the highway would be completely closed and the smoke would move in the way that it did," echoed Colinda Laviolette. 

Funk was one of about 350 people fleeing the northern fires who had registered at a St. Albert evacuee reception centre as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Richard Funk, a Fort Smith, N.W.T., resident speaks to CTV News Edmonton in St. Albert on Aug. 15, 2023, where he was staying while a wildfire evacuation order was in place at home.

He was flown out of Fort Smith by a Hercules helicopter on Monday as flames closed in and forced the closure of all roads leading out. 

Evacuees were first taken to Grande Prairie in northern Alberta about 1,000 kilometres away. 

As resources there were maxed, the City of St. Albert was asked to open a reception centre.

Laviolette, a Fort Smith resident of 20 years, lives partly in Edmonton and was in the Alberta capital when Fort Smith's roads closed and telephone lines went down – but her 16-year-old son was still in the community with his father. 

"Knowing my son was there and knowing how drastically quickly the situation was changing, it was scary for me," she recalled. 

In 2016, much of Laviolette's family was in Fort McMurray when the municipality started to burn. 

"I don't know how my mother held it together knowing basically her whole family was there." 

Somehow, her internet in Fort Smith remained connected and she was able to communicate with her teen until he was flown to Grande Prairie on Monday. The family is waiting out the disaster in Edmonton. 

Colina Laviolette, who lives in both Edmonton and Fort Smith, N.W.T., speaks to CTV News Edmonton on Aug. 15, 2023, about wildfires burning through northern Canada's boreal forest.

Laviolette raised all of her six kids in Fort Smith. Her house there, she bought new. The family's dog is still there, too, under the care of those who stayed behind. 

"All the memories, all the sentimental items that I have that I've collected from family throughout the years are still there," she said, only alluding to the remaining fear of losing her home. 

"It's tough. You don't know what you've left and you don't know what you're going to go home to," Connie Smigielski, St. Albert's emergency social services director, acknowledged.

"The best we can do is be here, put on a brave face, get them some supports as fast as we can, get them into some lodging as fast as we can, and be a support for them." 

Funk said all there was to do was "sit back, watch the news and see what happens."

Some 20,000 square kilometres have burned so far in Canada's northern boreal forest. More than 230 wildfires are burning

The St. Albert evacuation reception centre at Servus Place closed on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Help will next be provided in Leduc, about 15 kilometres south of Edmonton, starting at 8 a.m. Thursday at the Leduc Recreation Centre, located at 4330 Black Gold Dr. 

Laviolette was also sharing information about available resources to a Facebook group she started. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nahreman Issa and Brandon Lynch 

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