Isn't it fun when you get a call on what is first time in a month you have two days off, telling you that you're driving to another province? Well, in the world of journalism it isn't actually that bad, and it is often exciting and the story worth telling.
That was my weekend. I got the call on Saturday evening to pack my bag and be ready to drive to Cold Lake, Alberta on Sunday morning. In total 1,100 LaRonge evacuees are expected in this northern community of 16,000. I got in to town just as many of the buses were pulling up and watched as more than 600 people filled up the sports complex here, in a city which many of them don't know and had never been to.
In spite of travelling and having little sleep, the evacuees were friendly and willing to talk. They told me about anxiety over their homes and community but also about what it's like being told you have only an hour or two to grab what's most valuable to you and what you may need for an extended period away. You also have to keep in mind that you are only allowed to bring one bag.
Largely, even with a mad scramble from staff here in Cold Lake, the evacuees told me they were okay with traveling so far from their homes to a place they don't know. They were okay with their military-style cots and appreciative of all the help from local people in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
We desperately need rain in western Canada, but what we do have is plenty of awesome people.
Mona Bell didn’t have time to think about where she would end up as she quickly packed her belongings in La Ronge while a giant fire encroached on her community.
“I was pretty shocked at first. I wasn’t really expecting it, but I had gone out that morning and the smoke was real heavy, but I really wasn’t expecting them to pull us all out of there,” she said of Saturday’s evacuation order.
“I didn’t even have a chance to think what was happening. It was just all rushing and we weren’t prepared. We were just told to pack a bag and all meet up at the (JRMCC) hall … There was lots of confusion and wondering how close the fire was and stuff like that. There was a lot of scared parents and the kids were stressing out too.”
Bell was one of the more than 600 evacuees who arrived in Cold Lake, Alta. on Sunday after the Egg fire moved alarmingly close to communities in the Lac La Ronge area. By the end of the weekend, more than 7,900 residents were forced to leave as the general evacuation was upgraded to a mandatory evacuation for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Town of La Ronge and Village of Air Ronge. On Sunday evening, the fire had moved in from Hives Lake and was four kilometres from La Ronge while the other side of the fire was moving south at the airport.
“It was really, really smoky in some areas, like going past Weyakwin and in between Montreal Lake you could still see flames,” Bell said of her journey by bus.
“There was still spot fires and … it got smoky in the bus at one point because some of the windows couldn’t shut properly so it was uncomfortable for a while and it was pretty scary.”
Many of the evacuees were put up in centres around Prince Albert Saturday night including at SIAST where Bell said she slept on a floor with only a blanket. Her short sleep was interrupted by a fire alarm in the middle of the night and by 8 a.m. she was back on a bus headed west to Cold Lake.
“I am really happy I am not going to sleep on the floor tonight. Especially my grandkids and my kids…. and we are being fed good. I think we will have a better sleep tonight,” Bell said.
By Sunday afternoon more than 600 evacuees had arrived in a convoy of Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) buses at the Cold Lake Energy Centre, a large recreation facility with a gym, fieldhouse, and a hockey arena. Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland said they are expecting to house up to 1,100 people by the end of the transition.
“We were more than willing to help out … If we had a fire in our community, our residents would be displaced too and probably would be looking at Saskatchewan to accommodate our residents,” he said. “It’s the Canadian way to help people out.”
Much like the Saskatchewan evacuation centres, the Red Cross provided army-style cots and blankets and city employees were volunteering as needed to provide and cook meals. Copeland said the Red Cross is leading the charge but the city will help out as much and as long as needed.
“We need rain across western Canada in the worst way,” he said. “I’m sure everyone in that building doesn’t want to be here, they want to be back home safe. But right now it is what it is and it's probably going to be several days for sure, especially with today’s wind, I’m sure that didn’t help put out any fires in Alberta or Saskatchewan.”
Copeland added that Cold Lake is home to the largest air force base in Canada with over 2,000 personnel on standby to help if Red Cross makes the request. For now, the need is preparing food and providing access to entertainment and laundry services. Many of the evacuees took the 15 minute walk to the nearby Tri-City Mall to grab coffee, food, and things they forgot at home.
“I am just looking out for the necessities right now like I came with my grandson and he doesn’t have any clothes so we need clothes for him and clothes for the other kids,” Sylvia, an evacuee, said.
“There are people walking around with barely anything. It’s very sad.”
Breathing in fresh, smoke-free air, Sylvia said the evacuation was terrifying.
“In the evening as we were coming down, it was dark already. We were going by Weyakwin and it was just smoky there too. I had to cover my mouth in the bus,” she said. “You could see little fires alongside the road, it was just very horrific. It could have flared up anytime. It was very scary.”
Although she did not expect to end up in Cold Lake, she said it’s beautiful and the local community is doing what they can to help.
“The people came all at once so they are just scrambling around right now trying to do what they can. They are doing a good job at it,” she said. “They are treating us very well actually. If you ask for something, they say it's coming.”
That doesn’t stop the worry for Marilyn Roberts who quickly packed her clothes, headphones, and toothbrush before evacuating.
“I was thinking about my cat the whole way … My cat might be starving,” she said with a glum look on her face. “I would rather be home right now taking care of my cat.”
Read the original article here.
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada