Red Cross working in First Nations community impacted by the Alberta fires

As an emergency management director, Angela McKenzie is used to helping others from the Fort McKay First Nation deal with disaster. So, it was doubly challenging when wildfires swept north from Fort McMurray and forced her to flee, along with her new baby and hundreds of others, through dense smoke and flames.

“I really wanted to stay as long as possible, but smoke was seeping into our house, and it was getting pretty scary, so it’s got to be family first. I just had to cover my baby and myself, jump in our vehicle and go,” recalls McKenzie, as she waited recently to talk with the Canadian Red Cross outreach team visiting the hamlet of Fort MacKay.

Red Cross teams are offering assistance to the region’s indigenous people, fanning out to Fort MacKay, Fort Chipewyan and other remote First Nation communities to offer support – for groceries, household goods and a range of other unique needs.

About 50 kilometres from Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay is perched on a hill overlooking the wide Athabasca and Mackay rivers, once part of the historical fur trade route from Hudson’s Bay. While the First Nation calls the place “McKay,” maps continue to add an extra letter to “MacKay.”

Recently, a Red Cross team of three, including Nancy Hollman who grew up in the area, worked in the band office hall under the proud gaze of a mounted buffalo head and soaring ceilings decorated with indigenous art.

As the team helped a steady stream of about 40 families that day, local people brought heaping plates of moose meat in gravy and bannock, as thanks.

McKenzie said her community had hoped to escape the disaster, and managed to shelter about 7,000 people fleeing Fort McMurray after evacuations were first ordered there. People slept in the band office hall, school arena, day care centre and in private homes. Managing all this, McKenzie worked around the clock for almost a week. For days, her partner brought their baby, Phoenix, to her so she could continue breastfeeding and helping others, she recalled.

But on May 7, people with infants, the elderly and those with respiratory problems were ordered to evacuate Fort MacKay, so McKenzie left with family in a convoy down the highway to St. Paul. “It was like driving through a really bad, foggy night, because the air was so bad,” she recalled.

They stayed for several weeks in a St. Paul hotel because space was already tight in Edmonton. The family registered with Red Cross and were happy to receive electronic fund transfers to help with groceries, diapers and other essentials, she said.

Now, many people have returned to Fort MacKay. Homes were smoke damaged, but fire didn’t reach them. Some residents are still waiting to get back to work, including her partner and father-in-law who have mining jobs. And McKenzie’s mother is trying to help support three grandchildren.

 “So, the help being offered now by Red Cross, the extra funds, and just knowing that you’re here to help, I know that’s really appreciated. It’s a very good thing,” said McKenzie.

She is confident that her community is strong and will rally again. When it is pointed out that her child’s name, Phoenix, is a symbol of new life rising from ashes, McKenzie laughed. “Yes, I realized that recently, and I just thought, well, that’s fitting!”     

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