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More than 200 structures burned in northern Alta. community; crews battling 15,000 ground fires


More than 100 homes and 200 structures have been destroyed by fire in the community of Fox Lake.

The community is one of three on Little Red River Cree Nation (LRRCN) about 850 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Its 3,700 residents were forced out on May 3, and the chief of LRRCN says it could be months before anyone who has a home to go back to can return.

Evacuees are currently spread out in a number of communities, including High River and Paddle Prairie.

"It's been over three weeks now people have been out of the community and living in, a good chunk of our people are living in gymnasiums here and in High Level," said Darryel Sowan, communications lead for the community.

Sowan says a 500-person camp at John D'Or Prairie will open by the end of next week to bring some of the evacuees living in evacuation centres closer to home.

"People should be moving in there by next weekend, we hope."

A second 500-person camp is also under construction.

LRRCN Chief Conroy Sewepagaham says there are currently 15,000 ground fires burning in Fox Lake, threatening the buildings that are still standing.

Each night, LRRCN members go to the community to fight the ground fires.

"A lot of the folks that’s been doing the ground work at night time with our crews have already lost their homes. It's just the ability for them to feel a little closer to home, despite the fact that a building they used to call home is not there standing," Sewepagaham said Thursday. "They simply just want to do something for the community."

Sewepagaham says once the ground fires are out, Fox Lake residents will be allowed back in a controlled reentry to collect any remaining belongings.


After that, the rebuilding of the community will begin, with challenges not faced by any other community in Alberta ravaged by wildfires.

"This is not Fort Mac. This is not Slave Lake. All the other fires that have happened in Alberta, they all have readily available infrastructure leading up to them. So their rebuilding could be done expeditiously. We don’t necessarily have that luxury," Sewepagaham said.

The community is only accessible by ice road in winter.

In summer, a barge carries people and vehicles to Fox Lake.

"A lot of people don’t realize that Fox Lake with our huge population, the only way we can bring in goods is in the winter time. So from December to March."

"Anything that you need, all the necessities of life, we do it in the winter time."

The existing barge wasn't large enough to carry tools or materials to rebuild the community, but Sewepagaham says thanks in part to the province, a new barge is on its way from the U.S.

"It will be brought in in 23 pieces, and it will basically be used for hauling heavy equipment, part of the cleanup, which is going to be a massive operation."

Sewepagaham says special workers and equipment will need to be brought in to deal with asbestos in the community.

Getting power back to Fox Lake will also be a challenge, but Sewepagaham hopes the new barge will help.

"There are some power poles that are quite the length and the weight, which unfortunately our current barge operations can’t handle that weight."

The road leading to Fox Lake will present some challenges for rebuilding as well. According to Sowan, Highway 58 is more than 130 kilometres of gravel road.

While the province had a plan in place to pave the road in sections, LRRCN officials hope the destruction in the community will cause the government to update its timeline.

Both Sewepagaham and Sowan say Fox Lake residents are resilient, and it's helping everyone get through a tough time.

"It's lifting. It gives me a little extra boost in terms of shifting through those nights. Some days, lack of sleep. But that’s what’s keeping me going," Sewepagaham said.

"The people of Little Red are very resilient and they know what they’re doing. They band together when the tragedies like this happen."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jessica Robb Top Stories

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