An information session that drew approximately 400 County of Grande Prairie residents evacuated due to the Dunes West wildfire had many demanding answers.
Hosted by the Grande Prairie Regional Emergency Partnership (GPREP) at Evergreen Park Monday, May 8, the session hosted frustrated homeowners voicing concerns.
The session was dominated by evacuees asking for updates on the state of their properties.
County of Grande Prairie Reeve Bob Marshall said his most significant takeaway from the night is that residents want better communication.
“They want to see what’s happening with their homes,” said Marshall.
“I don’t think anybody could have been prepared for this,” he said, noting the Dunes wildfire south of the city isn’t the only one raging in the northwest corner of Alberta.
“We weren’t prepared; we did the best we could with what we had,” he said. “Our resources have put their lives on the line to try to contain this fire and protect people and property.”
The session was also streamed to the County of Grande Prairie YouTube page. Approximately 740 individuals watched the stream.
County of Grande Prairie Fire Chief Trevor Grant noted that the fire started down the banks of the Wapiti River.
“(It) did start building very quickly, and it was going up a slope, and when fires are burning upslope, they burn much faster.”
He added that hot and dry conditions province-wide and a lack of significant rainfall were also factors.
As of Monday, 56 firefighters and 19 fire apparatus were battling the blaze.
He noted another 100 firefighters were expected.
“Our current priorities are based on the following order. It’s always life safety first, incident stabilization comes next, and then the protection of properties and protection of the environment,” said Dan Lemieux, GPREP incident commander.
One resident who owned cattle told the session panel she had been trying to get back to their property to check on their animals. She said she wanted to ensure her animals “have a fighting chance.”
“We have cows calving, one-month-old babies, our operation does not run like normal operations that you all know.
“All I want to do is feed and make sure my animals have water and get through the next two days or three days.”
County Chief Administrative Officer Joulia Whittleton said safety of the fire crews working the blaze as well as the public at large is the priority, asking attendees for patience.
Citing the forecast for 30 degree temperatures by the weekend, Whittleton said we are “praying for the best and preparing for the worst.”
Another resident said energy companies had offered to help water areas to help contain the fire, though they were not trained for fire suppression. Offers from the public at large to spray water or clear brush were also declined, he added.
A resident said he believes the fire could have been stopped within 12 hours if the county had allowed residents to perform their own fire prevention.
Marshall said they would look into utilizing resources offered by the community and what can be done to expand the help. By Tuesday morning, GPREP had posted a form online where those interested could reach out.
Some residents left the information session early, such as Roxann Wilson, a Riverview Pines resident, who called it “a waste of time coming down here.
“Just let us know if our homes are okay; that’s all we wanted.
“I expected to see maybe a picture of our subdivision. I can’t go by speculation. I want to see it with my own eyes.”
Rumours that summer students were being used to enter the evacuation zone to dispose of flammable material near residences were disproved by Lemieux, who said no summer students are entering the zone. He said seasonal staff is being used to replace RCMP and Peace Officers at some checkpoints to free up some resources.
Residents also shared their frustrations with the temporary entry passes; some of those who could obtain passes were turned away at checkpoints.
Lemieux said if it is safe, a pass will be provided – he said some areas may not be safe, and access will not be granted.
“The changing weather conditions require us to adjust our tactics on a regular basis,” he said.
The panel on Monday consisted of Lemieux, Fire Chief Grant, Reeve Marshall, City Mayor Jackie Clayton, and Tammy Wentzell, emergency social services.
Some residents noted MLAs were missing from the panel and would have liked to have seen provincial representation there.
Marshall noted that he had taken Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA Travis Toews on a tour of hotspots with the fire chief.
By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 11, 2023
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