Ramona Ross was already hard at work at the local gas station on the Montreal Lake Cree Nation Thursday morning as more than 1,000 people returned to the community after nearly three weeks of evacuation around the province.
“I was shocked to see how many trees are gone and how many people were gone and how quiet it was, it was like a ghost town,” Ross, who arrived late Wednesday night, said. “Getting back to work and adjusting, seeing everybody come back today is really nice, really nice.”
Ross sat outside on a quick break in an extremely busy day to give the local volunteers and firefighters a handshake for all of their hard work. She had been staying with family on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation but was ready for her own bed.
“I was so happy, I was packed already a day before,” she said.
Bus after bus arrived in the community throughout the day dropping off community members who bustled through puddles from a recent rain shower with smiles wide on their faces. But Ross said they are aware that not everyone has somewhere to come home to.
“There are a lot of people who are down. Some of them lost everything, completely everything. Some people left with nothing, a lot of the donations they got in PA helped quite a bit, so they are coming back with something,” she said. “But it’s hard knowing you are coming back and you don’t have a house, I feel really bad.”
The pit where a fourplex used to stand on Montreal Lake Cree Nation.
On July 3, a wind changed in the area and flames descended on Randy Bird’s house. Bird had been evacuated, along with everyone that day including volunteers and firefighters, but returned the next day to find only ashes.
“They told me over there at the gym, they told me that my house burned down,” Bird said.
“I thought about my clothes. My dogs were over there too, I didn’t know where they ran after but they are still alive.”
Due to the fire threat, Bird barely had time to check for belongings before what was left of his home was bulldozed.
“I still got a rocking chair over there that didn’t burn,” he said, adding he only had a handful of clothes left, too.
“I have a trailer and I am going to move it back over there where my house burnt down. I’m going to try and dig up the junk.”
Bird decided, with the loss of his home, he would do what he could to avoid any other people experiencing the same thing. Since that day, he remained in the community as one of 40 volunteers who hunted for spot fires and flare-ups along with doing security rounds and feeding animals left behind.
“It is nice to help the community you know, putting out the fire,” he said.
Robert Bird also stayed behind in the community to volunteer.
“It feels good to see the people back again and back to normal. It’s good to see the people because they were getting sick of Prince Albert and having to stay in hotels, especially the elders, they really wanted to come home,” he said. “Everybody is smiling now.”
Fire evacuee Jonathon Lavallee returns to Montreal Lake on Thursday.
Jonathon Lavallee had a beaming smile as he met up with friends and family outside the community’s gym. He had been staying with his brother in Prince Albert and said he may have worn out his welcome.
“It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have any income or anything until now. We got a bit of help here and there from Red Cross, but that was just for groceries and stuff which we needed,” he said.
“I’m just glad to be home … I am enjoying everybody’s smiles. Everybody is happy to back.”
The children laughing and roads filled with traffic was a welcome sight for Chief Edward Henderson. It had been a very stressful and busy time for the chief with a lot of questions all day and night.
“They are seeing why we were asking them to stay away because of the fire and a lot of them are noticing how close it came to a lot of the houses around here and I think they realize now that we were blessed with the rain,” he said.
“All of the fires around, people are noticing how close it came to their houses. We are just lucky that we didn’t lose more than the six units.”
A giant sign welcomed the community back and a hot supper waited for them in the evening but Henderson said it will still be a difficult transition back.
“We are bringing in some counselling tomorrow because a lot of them are going to be devastated by the impact on the community,” he said, adding they are acquiring temporary housing for the 15 families who lost their homes.
“A lot of our people still live off the land and a majority of the areas around here are burnt. It’s 8,500 hectares around our area and further north of us over 100,000 hectares have burnt so that’s going to have an impact on the animal life, so that’s another thing we are going to have to look at … We are just happy that through it all our main concern was making sure that our people were safe.”
Henderson said the next few weeks will be determining the cost and the multiple year plan to bring the community back to where it was. It can wait a few hours because for the first night back, he just wanted people to enjoy being home.
“We managed to get the majority of our people home and all you see is happy faces around and everybody is just excited to be home after almost three weeks now,” he said.
“Overall people are blessed and saying thank you to all the people that have helped… not everything was perfect but at least they were safe and that’s the message we are all agreeing on.”
La Ronge evacuees to return home
The mandatory evacuation order for La Ronge, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Air Ronge, Wadin Bay and English Bay was lifted on Friday.
Mandatory evacuation orders are still in place for Eagle Point, Nemeiben Lake, Lamp Lake, Sucker River, Hall Lake, Sikachu Lake and Clam Lake.
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