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Evacuees from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., find refuge at Fort McKay, escaping the river’s danger | Breaking:


As an out-of-control wildfire approached the Fort Chipewyan community in northeastern Alberta, Dennis Shott spent the night leading evacuees to safety by water.

Shott led the first convoy of boats south along the Athabasca River and helped others navigate the turbulent river to Fort McKay harbor as smoke drifted through the dark.

“Navigating the river, it’s always moving sand,” he said. “There were many trees floating. You have to watch out.’

Tuesday night’s trip would be the first of many trips Shott would make to help evacuees to safety.

“The night is very difficult,” he said. “It was pitch dark down the river and I had seven boats behind me. A lot of them said, ‘Thank you.’ It made me feel good. It made me proud.”

Shott belongs to a group of Fort McKay residents who help people from Fort Chip who have been driven from their homes.

When evacuation orders were issued Tuesday for Fort Chip, about 450 miles northeast of Edmonton, the boat launch at Fort McKay, a community of 800 about 37 miles from Fort McMurray, Alta., became a first port of call for people evacuating by water.

Isolated on the shores of Lake Athabasca, Fort Chip can only be reached by boat or plane after the winter ice road melts. Evacuees were ordered to wait for an airlift or go south by boat.

Dennis Shott helped people evacuate Fort Chipewyan by water, making several trips along the Athabasca River. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Many of them traveled on boats piloted by people from the Cree and Métis community of Fort McKay, a four to six hour journey away.

In an interview Friday, Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, said there is close kinship between the communities and his members are happy to help evacuees, who continue to arrive by boat.

“The reality is that the journey to get here is no small undertaking. I mean, it’s almost 300 kilometers across the river,” he said. “When they get here, there’s a lot of fear. We just try to be a smiling face.”

Quintal said conditions on the river are challenging. Boats have to push against the current and sail for hours through thick smoke.

He said visibility was so bad that some were forced to tie off their boats and wait out the night on the open waters for the sky to clear.

“We just want it to be a support so that the leaders in Fort Chip who are fighting to protect their community don’t have to worry about their members,” Quintal said.

“We’ve got them, we’ll catch them and we’ll make sure they’re taken care of.”

An evacuation order was issued for Fort Chipewyan on Tuesday. As of Thursday night, the Fort Chip fire was about four miles from the community of Allison Bay, about three and a half miles from the airport, and about five miles from the hamlet.

The wildfire continues to spiral out of control. As of Friday, the flames hadn’t broken the edge of any neighborhood, but several cabins around Fort Chip burned down.

LOOK | Puppies evacuated from Fort Chipewyan arrive at Fort McKay:

Evacuees from Fort Chipewyan Alta find refuge at Fort

Six puppies evacuated from Fort Chipewyan

After the owners of six puppies were evacuated from Fort Chipewyan without them, a law and order officer returned the puppies to their owners in Fort McKay.

In an update Thursday, Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro confirmed that some properties near Devil Lake, an area north of Fort Chip riddled with traps, had been destroyed.

He said the losses were confirmed during a flyover, but the smoke was too heavy to accurately count how many huts were on fire.

“I’m terribly sorry to break the news,” Tuccaro said, his voice trembling. “I’m sorry.”

Tuccaro said he had spoken with Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and she confirmed that the federal government will help rebuild the destroyed huts.

As of Thursday, Fort McKay’s riverbanks remained busy with boats carrying evacuees. With free fuel, hot meals and fresh coffee, the boat launch has become a hub for evacuees.

Some will stay or go further south to Fort McMurray.

On Thursday afternoon, boats lined the sandy banks of the river at Fort McKay.

Stanley Shorman was there, refueling for another two-hour trip up the river. He plans to wait out the fire in his family cabin deep in the bush.

He spent his life in Fort Chip. Sitting in the bow of his boat, he bowed his head and sighed, thinking of the house he had left behind.

“Everyone is concerned,” he said. “I want to go home. I don’t want to see my house collapse.

“If my house is still there, I’ll be happy. That’s all I’m looking forward to.”

Shorman said he was grateful for the help of his neighbors. He said it was good to see all the bands come together.

“Fort McKay is here and we’re coming in and they’re here for us,” he said. ‘That’s a big thing. They are there for us. Without them we wouldn’t be here anymore.’

A man in a plaid shirt sits in a small gray boat.  He wears a cap.
Stanley Shorman, an evacuee from Fort Chip, was in port Thursday refueling his boat as he prepared to wait out the wildfire at his cabin (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Evacuees arriving at Fort McKay are greeted by a crowd of helpers. Medical personnel are present. Buses are on standby to take people south.

April Mercredi, who helps coordinate the response, offers free hugs.

She is from Fort Chip, but has lived in Fort McKay for many years.

She lives just steps from the water and has spent many sleepless nights guarding oncoming boats. She has counted 123 people so far. She greets each of them with an offer of food, hot coffee and a free hug.

She said it’s an emotional time. People here have experienced disaster before, but the fear of losing their home remains overwhelming.

When she sees people she knows from home walk in, there is an instant click. She said she asks each of them if they want a hug, an offer that is often accepted. “When you hear that sigh of relief? You know it helps them,” she said.

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