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Communities spring into action to help N.W.T. wildfire evacuees

Communities receiving Northwest Territories residents fleeing wildfires are springing into action to help, whether it’s offering clothes, camping spaces or pet food.

Communities receiving Northwest Territories residents fleeing wildfires are springing into action to help, whether it’s offering clothes, camping spaces or pet food.

Some 20,000 residents of the capital of Yellowknife have been ordered to leave by noon Friday. In recent days, thousands more were ordered out of communities close to the Alberta boundary.

Many people are without key belongings and looking for pit stops as they travel great distances to larger centres in Alberta.

“It’s been kind of a state of chaos for the last couple of weeks with these fires,” Yellowknife evacuee Kelsey Worth said over the phone as she made her way to Calgary.

Worth left Wednesday morning, earlier than most, because she didn’t feel safe. She packed her important belongings and a tent and camped overnight in High Level, Alta., 740 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

The town has offered free camping and parking for RVs. It has also opened its sport complex, offering snacks, cots and showers.

“That’s probably the first time I’ve ever evacuated that I’ve had a shower the first night,” Worth said with a chuckle, noting she also had to flee massive flooding that hit High River and other areas in southern Alberta in 2013.

“They were very welcoming in High Level and it took a lot of stress off of us.”

Other communities and Albertans have also opened their doors.

Mark Connell is allowing people to camp on his plot of land or use his RV near Manning, Alta., south of High Level.

Connell said friends from Yellowknife are on their way. He’s also fielded inquiries from families.

“As of now, I’ve got six people coming, and whoever else shows up.”

He said he has lots of friends in Yellowknife and wanted to help in any way he could.

“I’m a volunteer firefighter here, so I can kind of relate to what’s going on,” Connell said.

Some who’ve fled the N.W.T. are also in the Edmonton area, either staying with family or at nearby evacuation centres. Centres have also opened up in other communities in the province.

Melinda Laboucan with Goba Care, an Edmonton-based organization that offers supports to northerners seeking health care, said she’s been busy answering phone calls and collecting donations, including food, clothing, diapers and baby formula.

Support has been overwhelming, she said.

“I just can’t believe the amount of Albertans just wanting to help and support. It’s just — wow, I love this,” Laboucan said.

She’s originally from the N. W.T. and has family there who have left, worried they will lose their homes.

“It’s very heartbreaking,” she said. “The N.W.T. needs rain.”

In Calgary, where evacuation centres have been set up to accommodate at least 5,000 people, charity Parachutes for Pets is gathering supplies for animals.

It has also reached out to boarding kennels to see whether some can offer space.

Melissa David, who runs the charity, said some evacuees may not have taken pet supplies with them. Some shelters may have also closed their doors, she added, noting not all evacuation centres are pet-friendly.

“This is what we’re here for,” David said. “As soon as I started getting the messages last night that they were coming our way, I leaped into action.”

In Fort McMurray, a city that was ravaged by wildfire seven years ago, residents have also offered help.

Michel Labine, who left the territory over the weekend for the northeastern Alberta city, said people have given him and others new clothes at an evacuation centre.

“They’ve all lived through (evacuation) before. They know what it’s about,” Labine said.

Meanwhile, Worth said she plans to hunker down in a trailer once she reaches her destination.

She’s hoping for the best as everyone gets through the next few days.

“The fire is concerning,” she said. “I’m kind of avoiding looking at anything fire-related today. I just need a break for my mental sanity after the last 48 hours.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2023.

— With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon, Bill Graveland in Calgary and Jamin Mike in Edmonton

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press