As the St. Mary’s River wildfire continues to burn within the community of ʔaq’am, its residents are focusing on supporting one another as multiple homes have already been lost and the full scale of damages continues to unfold.
A number of residents in the community ʔaq’am are returning home tonight for the first time since they were evacuated on Monday as the St. Mary’s River Fire exploded amid erratic winds and tinder dry conditions.
“The Evacuation Order for a portion of Mission Road has been partially rescinded, which will allow residents in 16 homes to be able to go home,” says ʔaq̓am Nasuʔkin (Chief) Joe Pierre. The homes will remain on Evacuation Alert and residents should be prepared to leave again on a moment’s notice should conditions worsen.
“We are supporting our community members with the re-entry process, and while this is an exciting time for all those who can return home, we know it comes with mixed emotions as friends and neighbours have lost homes and others remain on Evacuation Order and are not able to go home yet,” adds Pierre.
Due to the ongoing fire and safety hazards, the Evacuation Order remains in effect for 36 homes beyond 5200 Mission Road. “This remains an active fire situation. While we know it will be hard for residents who cannot yet return home, we are appealing to them to abide by the Evacuation Order for their safety and to allow the crews free and clear access. We are also appealing to the public to stay out of the area, not only for their safety, but to respect the privacy of our community as residents transition back in,” adds Pierre.
A total of seven homes have been confirmed to have been lost as a result of the fire. ʔaq’am leadership were able to take the families who lost their homes in to see their properties prior and are working on escorted entry for residents who remain on Evacuation Order to enable people to get essential personal items as conditions are safe to do so.
With the partial rescind, 25 homes in ʔaq’am are now on Evacuation Alert, while 36 remain on Evacuation Order. 15 nearby homes in the Regional District of East Kootenay remain on Evacuation Order, while a further 652 are on Evacuation Alert including the Canadian Rockies International Airport and Fort Steele Heritage Town.
“We are overwhelmed with the offers of support and we are still working to get a full grasp on what will be needed. For those wanting to help, we would ask that you hold onto donations until we have had an opportunity to narrow down our community’s needs. Financial donations are being accepted directly through ʔaq’am Administration and Ivan Winter at email@example.com,” says Pierre. “We remain deeply grateful for the incredible efforts of all those who are working so hard on this fire – from the exhaustive efforts on the front lines to the people working in the background to support in any way they can. While this has been an immensely trying time in our community, the incredible cooperation and support will be forever remembered.”
“This has been a tremendously difficult week for our community. Yesterday, we met individually with all of the people who have lost homes, and then with the community as all of us are affected. But, we are Ktunaxa and we are strong. We are all family and when times are difficult, we as a community come together. In the days and weeks ahead, we will support one another and we will get through this,” says ʔaq̓am Nasuʔkin (Chief) Joe Pierre.
A total of seven homes have been confirmed to have been lost when the fire, driven by strong winds and tinder-dry conditions, exploded Monday afternoon after downed power lines ignited nearby grasses. Due to the ongoing active fire and safety hazards, the full extent of the damage is not yet known. “To put the magnitude of the impact into perspective, those seven homes represent 10% of the houses in our community. They represent a home, shelter and security for those affected families,” adds Pierre. “Our focus right now is on supporting our community and ensuring everyone’s safety. We are respectfully asking the public and media to honour our request for privacy and for the time to support our community in the way we need to.”
Several roads within ʔaq’am remain closed and Pierre is urging all residents to respect the closures. “It is absolutely critical that people stay out of the closed areas. While we recognize people want to see the effects of the fire, it is extremely dangerous within the fire zone. In addition to the risk from the active fire itself, there are danger trees and other hazards and people need to stay out. We are also asking the public to stay out of the area to provide the BC Wildfire Service and responding crews full and unimpeded access.”
52 homes in ʔaq’am remain on Evacuation Order, with a further 10 on reserve on Evacuation Alert. 33 properties in the surrounding area also remain on Evacuation Alert, including Fort Steele Heritage Town. An Emergency Support Services (ESS) team has been on site since Monday supporting evacuees and an ESS Reception Centre is set up for evacuees and for a safe space for the community to come together. ʔaq’am is working closely with both the BC Wildfire Service and Regional District of East Kootenay as the priority will be to lift Evacuation Orders and Alerts as soon as it is deemed safe to do so.
As the need for supplies and items for those who have lost their homes as a result of the fire becomes clearer, there are a number of agencies coordinating the gathering of donations. While financial donations are being accepted directly through Ivan Winters at ʔaq’am at firstname.lastname@example.org, there are no Go Fund Me or other crowd sourcing campaigns being used. “It is disheartening and unfortunate that people prey on others’ suffering by starting scam fundraising sites,” adds Pierre. “We want to make sure residents are aware so they do not fall victim to these scams.”
City of Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services are working together with BC Wildfire Service crews on structure defense and structure protection. Heavy equipment and ground crews have been working overnight since Monday on establishing control lines. Ground crews are patrolling for spot fires along the St. Mary’s and Kootenay Rivers and are prepared to suppress as needed. Airtankers are supporting ground crews by reinforcing control lines with retardant. A skimmer group and heavy lift helicopter are assigned and will be using nearby water sources as needed. The BC Wildfire Service will be providing daily fire updates on the Wildfire of Note page on www.bcwildfire.ca.
“We are immensely grateful for the incredible outpouring of support from everyone and want to acknowledge the first responders, emergency personnel, emergency management teams and other stakeholders who are working in support of our residents and this community. There are no words at a time like this, but we want you to know your efforts are felt and your support is deeply, deeply appreciated,” adds Pierre.