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Wildfire-scarred Alberta Métis settlement pushes for second escape route

The only way in and out of the East Prairie Metis Settlement is a 40-kilometre range road that connects with Highway 2 some 360 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
The Bald Mountain Wildfire is shown in the Grande Prairie Forest Area on Friday, May 12, 2023 this handout image was provided by the Government of Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Government of Alberta Fire Service

The only way in and out of the East Prairie Metis Settlement is a 40-kilometre range road that connects with Highway 2 some 360 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Resident Ron Bellerose said it’s a good thing a devastating May wildfire started south of the community and didn’t cut off the road leading north to the key highway.

“There’s only one escape route in East Prairie and that’s the scary part,” says Bellerose, who has been living in a hotel room in nearby High Prairie since the blaze levelled his home about two months ago.

As he waits for a new modular home to fill the hole on his land, the 63-year-old is worried the settlement could be one natural disaster away from a life-threatening catastrophe.

“If a fire starts next spring from the northeast corner and heads south, that’s going to be a whole different story,” he says.

The chair of East Prairie says building a second access road has become a priority.

Raymond Supernault says there was another fire that followed the one that prompted the settlement’s evacuation.

The second one started on the community’s northeast end.

“It was crossing our highway that we use to get out of East Prairie and to get to High Prairie,” he says.

If fires were to ignite both on the south and north ends at the same time, Supernault says the community would have been trapped inside.

“It would be hazardous for us … we don’t want to be stuck in here during emergencies,” he says.

Supernault says the settlement has been asking the provincial government for an alternate route for more than two decades, but nothing has been done. The settlement can’t afford to build one and would need the province’s help.

Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors says it has been in contact with East Prairie and is “actively monitoring the wildfire situation and its potential effect on community access.”

“We will be conducting further site review and remain committed to finding a safe, timely and workable solution for the people of East Prairie Métis Settlement,” the ministry says in an emailed statement.

Over the last two months, wildfires burned more than 14,000 square kilometres across the province and forced 38,000 Albertans out of their homes.

East Prairie lost about 40 homes, of which 14 were inhabited at the time of the wildfire, says Coun. Reva Jaycox.

The Alberta government approved a $175-million recovery program earlier this month to help municipalities and Métis settlements affected by wildfires.

While East Prairie is eligible for Alberta’s Disaster Recovery Program, Supernault says he doesn’t know yet how much funding is coming his community’s way.

Restoring homes and demanding alternate access is just the beginning, Jaycox said, adding she expects the recovery to take at least two years.

That includes cleaning the burnt forest, establishing stronger fireguards surrounding the settlement, as well as reforesting lands that may take about 20 years to fully develop.

Jaycox points at a map, titled “East Prairie Harvest Plan,” posted on the wall in the settlement’s office.

It shows a fireguard around the settlement — a 400-metre-wide gap between the tree line and the community to stop flames from jumping in.

Supernault came up with the idea four years ago after another Metis settlement 390 kilometres north — Paddle Prairie — lost homes in a wildfire.

The plan was to remove trees, but Supernault says the community fell short in maintaining the firebreak.

“We cleared it, but we were supposed to go back and mulch it and burn the other little debris,” he said. “And that didn’t happen.”

The fire is also prompting residents to better fireproof their homes.

Bellerose plans to install a water pump on his property and knock down trees.

“You’ll be able to see the farmhouses down the highway,” he said.

Alberta’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations says it is hard to completely fireproof a community, but suggested practising FireSmart techniques could reduce damage

FireSmart, a program by the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta, has been helping communities to manage wildfire threats since 2013. It has recommendations on how to construct, maintain and landscape properties in a way that lessens the risk of materials igniting.

The settlement is also negotiating terms to insure homes in East Prairie. Jaycox says they’re not insured because of the long distance from the nearest fire station.

The ministry acknowledged the “need for more comprehensive insurance options for Métis settlements.”

“Given what we have seen this spring and in previous wildfire scenarios, we know a longer-term solution is needed to mitigate the elevated risks settlements face.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press