The Chuckegg Creek Wildfire of Northwestern Alberta started in roughly mid May of this year. Due to nothing but hot and dry weather to follow the start of the fire, it grew at an alarmingly quick rate and was almost instantly classified as out of control. Nearby towns, villages and hamlets were all soon evacuated because of it, and some people even had to evacuate twice! The fire has since burned through over 330,000 hectares, and as a result, has left some people without a home.
To date, the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement received the brunt of damages caused by the Chuckegg Creek Wildfire. An estimated fifteen homes have been lost within the Settlement. Compared to other surrounding towns, the fire really snuck up, and was knocking on the settlement’s doorstep well before fire crews were on hand to stop the blaze.
The photos and videos that have emerged from the initial evacuation of the settlement were shocking. The first one I saw was of a man sitting on the back of his pickup truck late at night playing the guitar while he watched his home burn in the flames of the Chuckegg.
As a broadcaster, it’s my duty to get the word of what’s happening around us out on the air. To get a better understanding of what was happening to and within the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement, I reached out to the settlement’s vice chair, Lori Wanuch. She set me up with Helen Cardinal. Helen lost her home in the Chuckegg Creek wildfire. To make matters worse, it was the home her late husband built.
Helen not only lost her home. Her late husband also had a trailer out in the woods on settlement property. Gorgeous spot with a great view. Also obliterated by the Chuckegg Creek wildfire. Her husband passed away by that trailer in the woods. You can only imagine how wrenching it must be to discover that the cross put up in his memory at the very spot he passed away was gone. No faint trace of its existence left.
Helen and I initially spoke over the phone shortly after being connected. We talked about what she was going through at the time, how the situation has been handled by local authorities, and settlement relief efforts. Our first conversation can be found by clicking here. (The more recent one is at the bottom of the post).
After our initial chat, Helen and I stayed in touch. I asked her to keep me up to date with what’s happening within the settlement, and on any progress made on returning back. Over a month after being evacuated, residents of the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement were given the green light to return.
Although returning home is often looked at in a positive light, the fifteen families who lost their homes in the wildfire looked at the situation in a different light than those who’s homes were still left standing.
Helen expressed her concerns to me regarding her family’s return to Paddle Prairie. She was looking forward to it, but also nervous in regards to the state of what she will be returning home to.
As you can imagine, she was shaken about having to return. Knowing her family home is now a pile of ash and having to come back to see it in that state is not something anybody looks forward to. Especially since the home was built by her late husband.
When we got to the settlement, the sights, sounds and smells echoed the chaos caused by the fire. You could hear the helicopters still whirling about in the air. You could see the once mighty trees that are now no more than charred match sticks. Smoke still loomed on the horizon. The heartbreak started when the cars stopped.
We looked around at what was left of the property.
It wasn’t much.
Miraculously, some relics of the past remained relatively in tact after the fire. Sentimental things Helen kept around the house (she loves antiques).
After assessing the damage to the house and stopping in the Settlement’s main community building, we were on our way to the jack pine forest. The very forest in which Helen’s late husband passed away, and their camp once stood.
The drive through the trees was quite the experience. Imagining this forest as a place once lush with wildlife, bushes, shrubs, trees and vegetation… all reduced to the same toppling black match sticks. There were even small hotspots still smoking just off the road!
Taking a look at the forest from both sides of the Peace River was a night and day difference. Sure, there were still small hotspots on the La Crête side, but later taking the ferry to the La Crête side, it was evident just how much destruction the Chuckegg Creek wildfire has caused Paddle Prairie.
It was on the La Crête side of the woods that Helen and I stood under a tree. In the rain, and with the ferry chugging along in the background, we talked about the events of the day and future plans for herself and the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement. The full interview can be found below.
It’s quite evident that the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement was ravaged in the flames of the Chuckegg. Homes were lost. Memories, gone. Destruction as far as the eye could see, dressed in black like a burnt match stick. But as Helen pointed out in the interview, “we have to look at this as a rebirth… we have to rise from these ashes.”
Since the days after the interview, the Settlement has been slowly starting to do just that. Out of all this chaos, they managed to come together. With the generous help of everyone who contributed to the relief fund in any way, shape or form, the settlement is on their path to rising up from their ashes.
More photos from my time at the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement can be found in the gallery below: