‘We’ve learned to manage very well’: Fort McKay puts disaster management skills to use
By Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The mere smell of smoke sends Ron Quintal’s pulse racing. As soon as the signature campfire scent hits his nose, he feels compelled to walk the perimeter of his home and scan the surrounding landscape, looking for its source.
Ever since fighting “The Beast” – a massive system of wildfires that devastated Fort McMurray and swept through northern Alberta in 2016 – Quintal says his “anxiety level goes from zero to 100 in a matter of minutes” at that telltale warning sign.
Quintal is well acquainted with crises. He has been president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation since 2005 and has over 20 years of experience fighting fires in the region.
When The Beast hit, Quintal said, he spent eight days battling the fires “head-on.” “The day that Fort McMurray was evacuated … I didn’t sleep for 36 hours because we were busy fighting fire,” the 44-year-old recalled.
Quintal was deputy fire chief with the Fort McKay Fire Department during the 2016 fires, which forced over 90,000 people to evacuate, burned almost 580,000 hectares of land – seven times the area of Calgary – and destroyed 2,400 homes and businesses.
With Canada facing an unprecedented wildfire season, communities across the country are experiencing similar emergencies, some for the first time. Climate change – largely driven by humans burning oil, coal and gas – is creating hot, dry conditions more frequently, potentially setting the stage for more and larger fires this summer and in the years to come. Wildfires have already burned 3.3 million hectares of land across the country this year, which the federal government says is “10 times” the normal area at this point in the fire season.
“In the last 15 years … we’ve been evacuated three times for forest fires,” Quintal told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. “Emergencies, for us, are things that we’ve learned to manage very well.
“I think that we had no choice,” said Quintal.
When an evacuation order was issued on May 30 for the community of Fort Chipewyan, located almost 300 kilometres upstream, the Fort McKay Métis Nation and Fort McKay First Nation were ready to spring into action. Situated on Lake Athabasca, Fort Chipewyan is only accessible by boat or plane. There is a winter road, but that’s of no use during the spring, summer and fall.
“Right off the hop,” three safety boats stocked with medical supplies, fuel, food and water were sent upstream to assist evacuees: one boat went all the way to Fort Chip, and the other two positioned themselves downriver to help people on the hours-long journey, said Quintal. The evacuation order for Fort Chipewyan includes the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Evacuation by boat is “a treacherous trip, to say the least,” he added. In some areas, the smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see more than 15 or 20 feet ahead of you; at other points, “maybe 100 yards,” which posed a problem for navigating around large sticks carried by the strong current.
At least three families tied their boats off to the shore and hunkered down under a tarp for the night as darkness fell because poor visibility meant they couldn’t navigate the river, Quintal said.
Within four or five hours, an evacuation point was set up in Fort McKay with more supplies for the incoming boaters and speedily erected barriers for people to tie their boats. People monitored the boats 24/7 to give evacuees some peace of mind, said Quintal. The first boats arrived at seven o’clock on Tuesday, May 30, and continued for the next three days. Fort McKay Métis Nation and Fort McKay First Nation kept things organized with a registration post and arranged for transportation to Fort McMurray, about 60 kilometres downstream.
Relationships with surrounding oilsands operators (like impact benefit agreements and business arrangements) are a big part of the success of Fort McKay’s disaster management, Quintal said. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword” because those resources are so important to the community’s ability to handle situations like this, and they likely wouldn’t be able to fund their own disaster management without it.
On the other hand, oilsands production drives climate change and the presence of industry means the community is “used to being on alert” for everything from toxic tailings leaks to hydrogen sulfide leaks: a poisonous, corrosive and flammable gas found during the drilling and production of crude oil and natural gas.
Fort McKay is able to persevere and protect the health and safety of community members both because of and in spite of industry.
Wildfires don’t just leave scars on the land. They are “emotionally scarring” for the people affected, he said.
The first concern is getting your family out, but once in a safe place, the worries are endless. The fate of your home, workplace, beloved pets, children’s school and more floods your mind, he said.
Quintal has contacts in the region he can reach out to for more information at the first smell of smoke.
“Your everyday person who’s had to face these anxieties doesn’t have access to that, and nine times out of 10, they depend on social media to get their updates,” said Quintal. “For me, being a leader, I get anxiety; I can’t even imagine what your everyday citizen goes through.”
Reflecting on all the disasters he’s dealt with, Quintal says pure adrenaline marked his first evacuation experience and years directly fighting the fires. Now, almost 20 years later, he emphasized the importance of an overlooked disaster skill: empathy.
You have to be a calm, reliable person and give people the company and comfort they need “because they’re going through something that’s terrifying that, in a lot of circumstances, they’ve never experienced, they’ve never lived through,” he said.
Natasha Bulowski is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Canada’s National Observer.
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