'My heart sank': KFN residents grieve impact of wildfire on their community
'As I drove home yesterday for the first time, like I couldn't keep it in, my heart sank'
Isabelle Sunrise tried hiding her tears from her daughters when they drove through the Kátł'odeeche First Nation near Hay River, N.W.T., and saw the destruction left by a wildfire.
"As I drove home yesterday for the first time, like I couldn't keep it in, my heart sank," she said. "I started tearing up. By the time I got home, I was kind of sobbing, but I didn't wanna let my girls see but they heard me."
The community was evacuated on May 14 as a wildfire burned out-of-control nearby. Days later, it engulfed part of the reserve.
The 300 KFN members spent the next three and a half weeks scattered across neighbouring communities. On Tuesday, Chief April Martel said residents could go home.
Officials have estimated the fire damaged 18 buildings, including the band office and Yamózha Kúé Society (Dene Cultural Institute).
"It's really sad to see the town like that," said Sunrise. "Those homes missing and scattered, it was pretty heartbreaking."
When leadership finally announced residents could return, Sunrise said she was relieved but also "on edge" as there were still flare-ups in the forest nearby.
The inside of her home was covered in ash — she'd left without closing the windows — and there are signs of smoke damage.
"We lucked out because the fire was behind our house," she said. "I couldn't imagine like how those other people's families feel when they have no home to go to. It's really an eye opener."
Firefighter loses home, keepsakes
Raelene Lamalice says she knew early on that she'd lose her house in the fire.
The night of the evacuation, she said she saw the flames near the community and heard explosions. She guessed it was propane tanks or jerry cans.
"I kind of accepted it then," she said.
Earlier in the day, she took a few minutes to gather some belongings.
"Looking at the things that I grabbed, it didn't make sense," she said. "Like I grabbed my hammock and an old mug, a book."
As with most people, Lamalice kept her sentimental items tucked away for safekeeping.
Now they're all gone.
Some items include her baby moccasins and parka, some of her late brother's clothing, an aunt's ashes, and an uncle's moosehide jacket and gun case.
Unlike most KFN residents, Lamalice didn't leave the community — she's a firefighter and dove into the work after seeing the remnants of her home.
"Keeping busy and staying on task of the objectives and the daily tasks, it really helped kind of just push all of that aside and just focus on that there was a fire and help with the efforts to contain it," she said.
Now that the fire is considered under control, Lamalice has travelled to Alberta to buy a camper and is driving back to the reserve. She still doesn't know where she'll park it.
"Just get back to somewhat of a daily routine because I still want to be available to help out with more fires that seem to be happening here in the Northwest Territories," she said. At present, the nearly 100 people of Sambaa K'e, N.W.T., are in Fort Simpson, watching to see what will happen with a massive wildfire threatening their community.
This is the second time Lamalice will have to rebuild her home. She lost another house in a fire six years ago.
"So I understand things are replaceable," she said.
She now suggests people make a list of important items to grab in an emergency.
Needing a 'gentle heart'
Clean-up and damage assessment throughout the community is ongoing, and officials have warned residents to be cautious of falling and fallen trees.
Firefighters are also monitoring for any hotspots.
Sunrise and her family have yet to sleep in their home; there's too much cleaning up to do.
"I've just been rewashing all my laundry again," she laughs.
The road is closed to non-residents and the band office has temporarily been set up at the arena.
Sunrise says she wants to see the community come together to get through the disaster.
"Hopefully what this experience has brought us is we shouldn't always be getting mad at each other," she said.
"We need to have a gentle heart."
With files from Carla Ulrich and Hilary Bird