I have been a vegetarian and wannabe vegan for 35 years, but the cheese and salami sandwich gifted to me while I waited in line up at the Big River gas station in Fort Providence was the best sandwich I ever ate.
The dogs got the salami but I ate every bite of that processed cheese on white bread with great delight. I savoured every one of the 12 grapes, the orange, the Oreo cookie — everything. If it was so delicious it was because that lunch was prepared by caring hands at the nearby friendship centre.
It was then we realized someone cared.
The volunteers stood outside in the smoke and the incessant bugs going to each car offering this lunch while evacuees waited in line to fill their depleted tanks — some were there for two hours or more.
These acts of generosity and caring is what characterized the trip for many. The fire which threatened our homes and community brought out the best in us and others along the way. We ran into generosity and kindness everywhere.
There was supposed to be frost in High Level the night we arrived and myself and the dogs were in a tent trailer. One of the workers raced home after helping me set up and returned with a propane heater and a new propane canister he bought on his own dime. Another went home and brought dog food since the dogs refused to eat what I bought for them leaving town. Oh yeah, and one brought shoes since I only had sandals. (I think there is a parable in the bible about that.)
They ate. We were warm. My little crew and I were toasty and happy all night.
First thing next morning, we got free gas at the UFA who even filled my gas canister. No questions asked. Didn’t even look for ID. Our proud polar bear licence plates were enough.
After the excellent meals and genuine concern we received in High Level, we learned that the evacuation centre there was not being funded by the GNWT, which meant that the support we received was being paid for by the town itself. That community is no stranger to fires. Because of that, and maybe just their own humanitarian instincts, they helped wherever they could.
Understanding meant everything
After two days, volunteers helped me dismantle the tent trailer and we set off for Fox Creek arriving after the evacuation centre closed. “Don’t worry if you are late,” the evacuation centre worker there said when I called. “Just go to the hotel and come for a voucher in the morning.”
This understanding meant everything to those on the run.
Everywhere these acts of big heartedness were bestowed on people fleeing the North who had left with very little notice and carrying only that which would sustain them in the short term. And in the meantime, our eyes were glued to the North watching and praying for our community and especially our volunteers, who were doing everything to keep our property safe.
We saw them picking up garbage (thank you volunteers and Kavanagh) since wildlife had moved in increasing numbers likely to escape fires and enticed by the smell of garbage. One volunteer even sent out a note offering to empty fridges that which would spoil. Who would have ever thought of that?
In the meantime, Facebook was peppered with offers of accommodation and free camping for those driving south even though many slept in their cars that first night. It was a hard, hard evacuation made better by the open hearts of those who welcomed us on our journey.
The evacuation was not without its pitfalls. The notice was given on a Wednesday night giving Yellowknife less than 48 hours to pack and leave the community. I just had two dogs but thought about those trying to organize children and pets, fitting all they needed into a car or camper. Because of the short notice, panic did set in so there were long line ups of vehicles waiting to access the main highway. Driving to Fort Providence was bumper to bumper.
We understand the changing and volatile nature of fire (witness Maui). We understand that situations can change in a flash and that fire has a mind of its own. We know that the wind has us in its hands and sometimes we are just puppets on its strings. But when this is over, we do have to ask if there is a way to issue evacuation orders so that the process is done in a less stressful manner. With the congestion and fear, it was a miracle that there were only a handful of accidents considering the number of vehicles on the road. Panic kills.
Further, while we did receive free gas once we hit High Level, many paid out of pocket for that when leaving Yellowknife. We were told that anyone with vehicles was encouraged to drive then find their own accommodations. Many Yellowknifers paid for hotels those first few nights until we learned that shelter was available in communities with evacuation centres. Some did not save their receipts.
We looked with longing at those who were flown south not having to worry about that expense or a hotel room once they arrived. Thousands drove for 20 hours or more with kids packed in cars until they reached an evacuation centre where meals and lodging were provided. We are grateful — let’s not misunderstand that. But it is important to mitigate fear and panic wherever possible because that is what will hurt us in the end.
We totally understand that the GNWT was also reacting to the whims of the fire and trying to do the best it could. But it certainly puts the emphasis on preparing for how this will be handled if there is a next time. Because we live in changing times and because these types of evacuations will be more common as the planet warms, it will be contingent on governments everywhere to have a concrete workable evacuation plan in place to avoid the reactivity that characterized this event.
While the financial piece is sorting itself out, many people on low incomes which includes people with children working two or more jobs to support themselves, paid their own way south. Gas needed to be provided in Yellowknife. Further, filling up at Fort Providence was very expensive for many, especially for those living on limited means. As one teacher explained, many students are panicking because they have exhausted their funds. When asked about this, one MLA suggested people go to Income Support and apply for money there. This only demonstrated a complete disconnect between those earning comfortable incomes and enjoying a financially comfortable life, and those struggling to get by.
And many of those people did what the government asked: drive.
Some people who left their jobs will receive a one-time payment of $750 — which is a generous in the short term — but there are many who live on limited incomes such as students and seniors and the unemployed who will not qualify for help. Let’s remember that most people left with few provisions which means that some might have to buy clothing for colder weather and other basic needs such as toiletries. The cost of this adds up for those who have little.
It is not that the government is expected to cover everything. The meals at the evacuation centres have been beyond compare and the kindness of the staff and volunteers is second to none. We are so grateful. But the stress of this quick evacuation flight shouldn’t be exacerbated by financial hardship. Some are already wondering how they will be able to afford to go home.
Everyone is doing their best on the fly; there is no doubt about that. And we are here to support each other in the best way we can. We want each other to be safe and comfortable to minimize the stress of this climate change evacuation. We are refugees now and will continue to be refugees until we are able to slow the impact of climate change.
In the meantime, we will be OK. We will help each other out.
We will care when it seems impossible.
Stay safe everyone. We will get through this. Northerners are special in special ways and we are made of tough stuff. We will be home together soon and know that the help will be there when we need it.