Wildfire Evacuation Experiences of Residents in an Aboriginal Community in Alberta

This study aimed to understand the wildfire evacuation experiences of residents of Whitefish Lake First Nation 459. The objectives were to: (1) Identify characteristics of the wildfire evacuation that influenced how residents were positively and negatively affected by the evacuation; (2) identify characteristics of individuals, their social context, and the First Nation community affected how residents were positively and negatively affected by the wildfire evacuation; and (3) identify ways to reduce the negative impacts of wildfire evacuations on First Nations people. Qualitative research was completed during the spring and summer 2014.

The Utikuma Complex Fires in May 2011 caused the evacuation of Whitefish Lake First Nation 459, a community with approximately 1186 residents. The evacuation lasted 2 weeks for most residents and 3 weeks for residents with health issues. Most residents evacuated to nearby towns of High Prairie, Valleyview, Grande Prairie, and Peace River, though some evacuees stayed with friends and family in other communities, and approximately 20 residents stayed behind in the community. The findings from the interviews revealed a broad range of experiences before, during and after the wildfire evacuation.

By exploring and documenting how the evacuation took place we were able to identify the factors outlined above and how they came together to positively and negative affect the evacuation experiences of participants and the community. At Whitefish Lake First Nation, factors that positively affected evacuees’ experiences included that the band provided bus transport and gas to enable community members to evacuate; neighbouring Sucker Creek First Nation providing traditional food for evacuees; and information provided to evacuees by community leaders and those who stayed behind. Activities organized for children in the host communities, and provincial government funding to enable evacuees to replace food lost during the evacuation were also helpful. Factors that negatively influenced evacuees’ experiences including a lack of preparedness – in particular evacuees’ lack of understanding about where to go when they were told to leave; insufficient social support during and after the evacuation; challenges of staying in hotels for parents with young children; some money from the province being spent on alcohol; and financial challenges for the band.

Principal Investigator: McGee, Tara
Co-investigator: Christianson, Amy
Categories: Aboriginal Children, Youth and Families, Resiliency, Trauma
Keywords:natural disaster, families, residents, Aboriginal, evacuation, wildfire
Organization: University of Alberta
Program:Investigator-Driven Small Grant
Period:Jul 01, 2013 to Jul 01, 2014