Wildfire evacuation a costly expense for some Fort McMurray evacuees

The Red Cross offered help with food and housing, but some evacuees say they spent money they didn’t have on supports during last week’s evacuation.

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Fort McMurray resident Ryan Earle is one of many evacuees who are learning they cannot afford a wildfire evacuation.

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Earle left his Prairie Creek home on May 14 after the municipality ordered an evacuation of his neighbourhood. He spent about $500 on a hotel, food, gas and clothes, and borrowed another $300 from people.

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He was told the evacuation may last until May 21, long enough for evacuees to be paid $1,250 from the Alberta government and $500 per child. Early bought enough supplies to last the week. The evacuation instead ended on May 18.

Earle has a spinal injury and lives off a limited income from the Workers Compensation Board of Alberta. He says the evacuation has hurt him financially.

“It’s definitely hurt the wallet. I have to pay my regular bills and things are already tight enough for me. Than I was told I had to evacuate. It just doesn’t seem right,” said Earle. “The organization seemed like a last-ditch effort. It should have been a much more organized process.”

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Last week’s evacuation was smaller compared to the 2016 Horse Rive Wildfire. Only four neighbourhoods were forced to be evacuated. No homes were destroyed or damaged by smoke.

But some people who went through both evacuations felt they were better supported eight years ago. Others are frustrated they spent more than they needed to on supplies because they felt the evacuation would last longer than it did.

“There was way more support. This time it’s good the evacuation wasn’t as long, but it felt like there weren’t any supports for us,” said Laura Smith, who went to Lac La Biche after leaving her home in Abasand. “It’s rough. Everyone is having a rough time to begin with and this happens. It makes it rougher on everybody.”

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L-R: Stefanita Nunyaz and Linda Smith out for a walk in Abasand on May 20, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

In 2016, the Alberta government announced it would be sending payments to evacuees two days after Fort McMurray’s evacuation on May 3. The Canadian Red Cross topped those payments with $600 per adult and $300 per child. There was a national call for donations.

However, it was clear in 2016 the evacuation would last longer than seven days. The wildfire also left thousands homeless by destroying 2,579 homes, and smoke damaged homes, clothing, furniture and other personal items. Power losses forced many people in the city to throw out refrigerators filled with food that had been rotting for a month.

Dan Edwards, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, says the province’s seven-day waiting period for relief is too long.

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He is not sure if the food bank will see a sudden surge in demand, but is preparing for that possibility. Edwards already knows of some people who lost wages or were on limited incomes, but had to spend their own money on essential items during the evacuation.

“If you’re a family of four staying even in a hotel for even one night, that gets really expensive really fast,” said Edwards. “The cost of everything is going up and a lot of people were already in stressful situations when this happened. It’s still a hit and not everyone has three-months of savings set aside just in case.”

Mayor Sandy Bowman said he is concerned about reports of slow service and long waits for supports that many evacuees reported, particularly in Edmonton. A spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross says the focus this time was on finding evacuees food, lodging and help with other personal services.

“If there are enough identified needs and an appeal is launched, then Red Cross financial assistance is dependent on the amount of funds raised and is just one way that assistance may be provided,” said Canadian Red Cross spokesperson Leianne Musselman in an email.

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