FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alta. — A northern Alberta hamlet was eerily quiet and peaceful Wednesday after being evacuated in the face of an out-of-control wildfire inching closer to town.
"There's nobody around," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, whose people are among those ordered out of the remote northeastern community of Fort Chipewyan.
The sun was shining Wednesday and the skies were clear but the town was silent, he said.
"It was unreal. No sound of kids, no sound of motors. Just the essential services people. That's it."
Almost all the 800 inhabitants have left the hamlet, said Adam. With no summer road into the community, most were flown out on planes from a number of private carriers as well as an Armed Forces Hercules.
About 65 left by boat down the Athabasca River, many piloted by people from the Cree and Métis community of Fort McKay, a four- to six-hour trip.
Fort McKay had been preparing for the possibility since Tuesday morning, said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Association.
"We assembled our teams very quickly," he said. "We were ready."
More than 40 boats left Fort Chipewyan. They were monitored over the course of their journey by safety boats from Fort McKay carrying extra fuel, water and food, and met at the end by volunteers who prepared hot meals and cold drinks.
Some of those boaters had been forced to bivouac overnight along the riverbank when smoke and darkness made travel too dangerous.
The two communities are tightly linked, Quintal said.
"We share a kinship. We share a lot of family connections, a lot of friends."
Adam said there was a lot of emotion as people waited for planes out of the community.
"There was a lot of frustration, a lot of confusion. Definitely, people were scared," he said.
"They didn't know what to expect. You're leaving your home, you're leaving your community and you don't know if you're coming back."
He said the fire is about four kilometres from Fort Chipewyan's airport — half Tuesday's distance.
The evacuation is being handled in stages, starting with the community of Allison Bay, which is closest to the wildfire boundary.
Evacuees are headed to temporary accommodations in Fort McMurray and Fort McKay. Residents were told Tuesday to be ready to leave with 15 minutes notice.
It's been tough season for the residents of Fort Chipewyan.
In February, they learned their drinking water source was downstream from two releases of oilsands wastewater. No contaminants were found at the community, but people drank bottled water for weeks.
The community also suffered a series of suicides and suicide attempts this spring.
"We've dealt with so much," said Adam. "One crisis after another."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.
— by Bob Weber in Edmonton
The Canadian Press