As an out-of-control wildfire inched closer to the northeastern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan, Dennis Shott spent the night leading evacuees to safety by water.
Shott led the first convoy of boats south along the Athabasca River, helping others navigate the turbulent river to the docks of Fort McKay, as smoke drifted through the dark.
“Navigating the river, it’s always moving sand,” he said. “There were a lot of trees floating. You’ve got to watch.”
The Tuesday night voyage would be the first of many trips Shott would take, shuttling evacuees to safety.
“Nighttime is very hard,” he said. “Along the river, it was pitch dark and I had seven boats behind me. A lot of them said, ‘Thank you.’ It made me feel good. It made me proud.”
Shott is among a contingent of Fort McKay residents helping people from Fort Chip that have been forced from their homes.
When evacuation orders were issued Tuesday for Fort Chip, about 730 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, the boat launch at Fort McKay, a community of 800 about 60 kilometres from Fort McMurray, Alta., became a first port of call for people evacuating by water.
Fort Chip, isolated on the shores of Lake Athabasca, is accessible only by boat or plane after the winter ice road melts. Evacuees were instructed to wait for an airlift out, or make their way south by boat.
Many of them travelled on boats were piloted by people from the Cree and Métis community of Fort McKay, a four- to six-hour trip away.
In an interview Friday, Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, said there is a close kinship between the communities and his members are eager to help evacuees, who continue to arrive by boat.
“The reality is, the trip to get here is no small undertaking. I mean it’s nearly 300 kilometres on the river,” he said. “When they get here, there’s a lot of anxiety. We just try to be a smiling face.”
Quintal said conditions on the river are challenging. Boats must push against the current, travelling for hours through thick smoke.
He said visibility has been so poor, some have been forced to tie their boats off and wait out the night on the open water, until the air clears.
“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 will catch them and we’ll make sure they’re taken care of.”
An evacuation order was issued Tuesday for Fort Chipewyan. As of Thursday evening, the fire at Fort Chip was about six kilometres from the community of Allison Bay, about 3.5 kilometres from the airport and approximately eight kilometres from the hamlet.
The wildfire continues to burn out of control. As of Friday, the flames had not breached the edge of any neighbourhood but several cabins surrounding Fort Chip have burned.
WATCH | Puppies evacuated from Fort Chipewyan arrive 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 dotted with trap lines, had been destroyed.
He said the losses were confirmed during a flyover but the smoke was too heavy to get an accurate count of how many cabins burned.
“I am terribly sorry to break that news,” Tuccaro said, his voice breaking. “I am sorry.”
Tuccaro said he had spoken with Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, and she has confirmed that the federal government will aid in rebuilding the destroyed cabins.
Provincial officials said Friday there are 60 firefighters tackling the wildfire near Fort Chip. The Canadian Armed Forces will also deploy 85 military personnel on Saturday to help fight the fire.
As of Friday afternoon, 56 wildfires are burning inside the province’s forest protection areas, and 15 of those fires are out of control.
The riverbanks of Fort McKay have been busy with boats. With free fuel, warm meals and fresh coffee on offer, the boat launch has become a hub for evacuees.
Some will remain or will head further south to Fort McMurray.
On Thursday afternoon, boats lined the sandy banks of the river at Fort McKay.
Stanley Shorman was there, refuelling for another two-hour trip on the river. He plans to wait out the fire at his family cabin, deep in the bush.
He has spent his life in Fort Chip. Sitting in the bow of his boat, he bent his head and sighed, thinking about the home he left behind.
“Everybody’s worried,” he said. “I want to get home. I don’t want to see my house go down.
“If my house is still standing, I will be happy. That’s all I’m looking forward to.”
Shorman said he felt grateful for the help of his neighbours. He said it was good to see all the bands come together.
“Fort McKay is right here and we come in and they’re right here for us,” he said. “That’s a big thing. They’re there for us. Without them, we would be gone.”
Evacuees arriving at Fort McKay are greeted by a throng of helpers. Medical staff are on hand. Buses are on standby to bring people south.
April Mercredi, who is helping to co-ordinate the response, is offering free hugs.
She is from Fort Chip, but has lived in Fort McKay for years.
She lives steps from the water and has spent many sleepless nights keeping watch for arriving 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 seen disaster before but the fear of losing home remains overwhelming.
When she sees people she knows from home walk through her door, there is an instant connection. She said she asks each one 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.