More than a week after being evacuated, Kakisa residents returned home on Saturday to a town saved from flames.
The wildfire, first reported at the beginning of June, spread down the road to the community, but jumped the road twice – once avoiding the cemetery and once avoiding the village itself – before crossing the river. Residents who briefly returned to the community last week said the fire was burning not 100 metres away from the houses, but no homes or structures were damaged.
“There was something at play there,” said Chief Lloyd Chicot of Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa. “It was going straight for the community, but then it just jumped.”
Kakisa was evacuated June 27 with its 40 or so residents headed to Hay River, despite Fort Providence being closer. While some continued on to High Level to make the most of their forced exile, many remained in Hay River. That, however, came with its own challenges.
“It’s been really hard for the elders,” Chicot told The Hub last Thursday. “They’re not used to doing nothing all day … and the children, they just want to go home.”
While the elders stayed at the Northcountry Inn, the rest of the remaining 25 or so people were put up in the community hall at the Don Stewart Recreation Centre. Chicot said that many of the residents could have afforded hotels, but they preferred to stick together as a community.
“We’ve always worked to organize ourselves, not with MACA (the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs) or the government, but as a First Nation,” he said, adding that evacuation efforts had been slightly hampered by the reams of conflicting information available on Facebook.
To try to ease some of the burden for the evacuees, the municipality of Hay River and the Hay River Metis Government Council joined forces to provide a fish-fry for Kakisa residents. Metis president Wally Schumann said it was just a matter of course to take care of people in need.
“We just felt it was our responsibility as good neighbours to show some hospitality to our friends and neighbours of Kakisa in this stressful time,” he said. “I know they would do the same thing for us if we ever needed it.”
A crew of more than 100 firefighters from as far as Saskatchewan, Alberta and Alaska spent days battling the blaze as it travelled along the Mackenzie Highway to nearly surround the community. Ella Stinson, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the efforts of those crews helped save Kakisa, as did the sprinklers installed to dampen the houses.
“We want to thank all the firefighters out there,” said Chicot, noting that the crews were also taking care of the community’s dogs who had to be left behind. “They’ve been working non-stop to make sure we have homes to go home to.”
While the firefighters and sprinklers no doubt played a part, Kakisa residents also credit a higher power with the survival of their village.
“If you believe in God, this is a miracle,” said Chicot’s wife, Anita Chicot. “The fire went all around our houses, but it didn’t touch them. We prayed all night last night, and God gave us a miracle.”