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'Challenging time': Alberta wildfire evacuees to get financial aid, military to help

EDMONTON — The Alberta government promised financial aid Monday to people forced from their homes by wildfires that continue to threaten many areas of the province.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023 in Ottawa. Smith is set to speak by phone with Trudeau today to discuss possible help for wildfires raging in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

EDMONTON — The Alberta government promised financial aid Monday to people forced from their homes by wildfires that continue to threaten many areas of the province.

The province also asked the federal government for help, and Premier Danielle Smith said military personnel would be deployed to prevent looting and maintain order in evacuated communities.

"There is no question that this is a challenging time," Smith said.

"Tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and their jobs. They're leaving behind all they own."

Close to 100 fires remained active Monday during an unusually early and intense fire season. So far this year, 405 wildfires have burned nearly 400,000 hectares, according to the latest data available on the Alberta government's website. Last year at this time, 180 fires had burned 417 hectares.

About 29,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes in more than a dozen communities in recent days. Among them were about 300 hospital patients and residents in long-term care homes. The province said 54 schools have also been closed.

An evacuation order was lifted late Sunday for Edson, a town of about 8,400 people west of Edmonton, although it was still in place in some surrounding areas.

On the Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta, more than 40 structures, mostly homes, were lost.

Darryel Sowan, the community's emergency management communications co-ordinator, said some 3,700 people left the area quickly after the evacuation order was put in place last week.

There is no road into the community, so people had to use boats and higher-risk people were flown out.

"Because it’s isolated, a lot of those people have never even been away from the reserve," Sowan said.

"We want to get them back there and they want to go home. We are trying our best."

About 14 homes were destroyed on the East Prairie Métis Settlement near High River, said Brad Desjarlais, a firefighter in the community.

He said it has been extremely dry in the area, especially the grass, so the fire hungrily spread.

“It was fast, like really fast,” he said. “It was fast and zig-zaggy. It went this way and that way.”

A bridge in the community was also destroyed, meaning some members may not easily get home even if the evacuation order is lifted.

In central Alberta, a wildfire that destroyed some homes in Drayton Valley remained out of control.

In a post on social media, Brazeau County officials warned people not to approach the evacuation area, saying a change in weather could make the situation even more dangerous.

Jade Verheul, who had to flee Drayton Valley with her children on Thursday night, said she was lucky to have a place to go because her parents have an RV lot in Seba Beach, west of Edmonton.

"It is still stressful of course, but having this space to go to has made things a lot easier on our family," Verheul said in a message. "I know there are other families who have it much worse right now."

Reception centres were operating in Edmonton and Calgary to help evacuees and arrange for shelter.

The provincial government's financial aid will be a one-time payment worth $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent child. The money is to be available starting Tuesday via e-transfer and only to those forced to spend at least seven consecutive days away from home. People can apply online or by phone, Smith said.

Smith spoke on the phone earlier Monday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau promised help, including a matching fund with the Red Cross to help affected people.

"All weekend, we were watching images from the communities affected by these wildfires and I assured Danielle that we will be there to help," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.

— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg, with files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon, Colette Derworiz in Calgary and Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2023.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said more than 25,000 hectares have burned across the province so far this year.

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