Northern Alta. communities rebuild from fire

Fire risk still high and farmers remain on edge after 16 homes and 200 acres of crops destroyed in the La Crete area

LA CRETE, Alta. — Shards of glass, twisted metal and rubble are among the remnants of a former farmhouse that was ravaged by flames in northern Alberta.

Surrounding the ruined home, located in Tompkins Landing near La Crete, are children’s toys, a swing-set and strollers. Even a kitten walks around the area.

“It’s sad,” said Josh Knelsen, reeve of Mackenzie County, as he, councillor Ernie Peters and agriculture fieldman Grant Smith wandered about the site.

“This is a big hit to him. They had no insurance,” he continued, speaking of the young farm family that lived here. “You’d have to work years to get something like that, but it’s now gone.”

The destroyed home is only a fraction of all the damages seen across parts of northern Alberta due to ongoing wildfires.

The Chuckegg Creek wildfire, roughly 803,000 acres in size, destroyed 15 homes on the outskirts of the nearby Paddle Prairie Métis settlement, displacing at one point more than 10,000 people from various communities.

In the farming community of Tompkins Landing, where producers were also required to evacuate, it’s estimated 200 acres of crops were burned.

Knelsen said the damages are minimal considering the situation could have been much worse.

“It’s amazing there wasn’t a lot more that got burnt,” he said. “It’s not nearly as devastating as it could have been.”

Still, he said, farmers are on edge.

He said they have trailers equipped with water pumps in case the blaze returns. Most of the nearby fires weren’t under control as of June 21 and hot spots remained.

“We’re hoping and praying for more rain,” Knelsen said. “We need one or two inches over a long period of time, not a quick dose that only lasts for three hours.”

He said it was May 29 when the fire jumped the Peace River, forcing residents in Tompkins Landing to evacuate.

County officials anticipated it would come into the area, given the hot and windy climate. When the flames arrived, they figured it travelled about 10 km in seven minutes.

“It was like a fireball just rolling,” Knelsen said.

Added Smith: “We had no time to react to move livestock out. Producers had to open the gates and hope for the best. It moved that fast and really did get ahead of us.”

In the County of Northern Lights, which neighbours Mackenzie County, residents were ordered to evacuate but the damages were minimal, said Reeve Terry Ungarian.

He said about 300 to 400 cow calf pairs were also evacuated.

“There was lots of anxiety and feelings of inconvenience,” Ungarian said. “But at the end of the day, it turned out OK. This was a reminder there is a risk of emergency and that we shouldn’t take it for granted.”

James Thiessen, an organic hempseed and grain farmer in Tompkins, recalled that he wasn’t eager to leave, but he did.

He felt frustrated at times, he said, because he couldn’t get a straight answer from officials regarding the proximity of the fire.

Roads were also blocked, making it difficult for him to return and check on his place.

Producers were allowed back for short periods of time to tend livestock.

“When you’re evacuating an agriculture community, it’s not like evacuating a town,” he said.

However, he said he is still apprehensive about the situation. As of June 20, much of the La Crete area had either evacuated or remained on evacuation alert.

“The fire is not just west of me, but it’s also north of me,” he said. “If the wind changes and blows from the north, now I got risk from the north end now, not just the west. I’m getting to the point where there is a threat from two sides now.”

But despite potential evacuation snarls, Knelsen said the communities banded together effectively, providing food, water and shelter at centres in La Crete and Fort Vermilion.

During the interview in a restaurant, a man walked up to Knelsen, Smith and Peters and thanked them for their efforts.

“A whole lot of good came out from this,” Peters said.

“Everyone came together and just held in place and did what was needed to be done. It was quite amazing.”

Going forward, Knelsen suggested more farmland should be opened in the area to potentially stem wildfires from being as destructive in the future.

More cleared land would act as a fireguard, Knelsen said, adding wildlife could still be accommodated by having acres of forested areas in between farms.

Scientists with Environment and Climate Change Canada have said in reports that climate change has also played a role in recent fires, highlighting that warmer temperatures increase burning activity.

But forestry practices should also change, Knelsen added.

He said he would want older forests, which have more dead debris, to be harvested.

“You have to take some of that older timber,” he said. “Look how much has already burned.”

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