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Conflicting information from officials fuels anxiety among those who fled N.W.T. wildfires

Evacuees fleeing wildfires in the southern Northwest Territories say mixed messages from officials are adding more stress to already exhausted displaced residents.

'It just seemed like we were falling through the cracks,' said Pauline Heron of Fort Smith

An elderly woman and man smiling

Evacuees from the N.W.T. are expressing frustration with the way the territorial government and other organizations have handled financial aid options and accommodation support.

As an example, N.W.T. officials said last week that there wouldn't be any financial aid for people who left the territory on their own. Then, late last Friday, the government announced a funding program for people who drove out of the territory — but as Cabin Radio reported, that program has also caused confusion.

Evacuees fleeing wildfires in the southern Northwest Territories say mixed messages from officials are taking a toll on people waiting to go home, and adding more stress to already exhausted displaced residents.

"It's so stressful, it just seemed like we were falling through the cracks," said Pauline Heron of Fort Smith.

Heron was visiting family in Edmonton when the community was evacuated on Aug. 12. Not knowing what to do, she extended her hotel stay and waited for her husband Brian and their dog Mooch to join her.

Eventually, they made their way to the evacuation centre in Leduc, Alta., hoping to get their room covered. But she said they were told that because they booked their own room, they would need to continue covering the cost.

"It was like $1,500 out of my own pocket at that point, and I was thinking, you know, we're both retired," Heron said.

Not knowing what to do, they went to the Expo Centre in Edmonton.

"We waited for, I don't know how many hours. And it was chaotic there, it was noisy, and it was really hard for us to try and maintain some sense of hope because it just seemed like there were so many people."

'We can't help you'

Eventually, the couple made their way to the front of the line, but were again informed they would need to continue paying for their room. This time, the news came with an unexpected guilt trip.

"She said, 'Look around you, all these people here don't have a room, not even for a night. No, we can't help you,'" Heron said.

"We went back to the hotel and I was in tears. I just couldn't believe it."

Heron said they were informed that they needed to check out of the hotel room they were staying in and go back to the evacuation centre so they could be assigned a new room — but there was no guarantee that the new room would allow pets.

The Red Cross was organizing accommodations for evacuees in Edmonton. In an email, a Red Cross spokesperson said that questions about accomodations provided at the Expo Centre should be directed toward the City of Edmonton. The City of Edmonton did not return CBC's request for comment.

Adding to the couple's stress was the importance of staying in Edmonton, as Brian's five-year-old grandson Liam iscurrently receiving treatment for leukemia in the city.

"In some ways [the evacuation] is a mixed blessing," said Heron. "Because Brian now has the opportunity to go to the hospital as often as he can."

Eventually, Heron's son was able to find an advocate that stepped in and helped get their room covered. The couple is also being reimbursed for the days they already paid for.

But the misinformation has taken a toll on Heron. She said they felt singled out and belittled.

"I just broke down and cried because I just felt like nobody was listening, you know, and we're not young," Heron said. "Brian is 73, and I'm 70. It just seemed like we did something wrong, and I don't know what it is."

Fresh start derailed

Brothers Daemon and Milo Goodwin were set on a fresh start when they moved to Yellowknife in early August.

Not part of their plan was a mandatory evacuation order for Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, Dettah and the Ingraham Trail on Aug. 16.

Milo had just spent his very small first paycheque on groceries, and there was no money left over for gas. Luckily, they were able to join Daemon's girlfriend and her parents for the trek down south.

But the brothers were now in a situation they were not prepared for: relying on the financial help of others.

"It's stressful because I'm having to rely on other people, and it's very uncomfortable," Milo said. "I like being independent and making my own steps on what I want to do, income-wise."

Daemon has also struggled with the idea of living off his girlfriend's parents.

"Stressful. Really stressful. Humbling," he said about the experience. "I'm very thankful for her parents for bringing us down here, keeping us safe. But I feel bad. Like, I want to pay you back for this, but I can't."

Struggle to get financial aid

The two knew they needed to find some form of income. They approached their band, the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin government in the Yukon, but were told the government wasn't set up to deliver emergency funding.

"They said that this would be the first time that someone would have reached out with this type of scenario," said Milo. "They brought it up to their executives, and they said that it was a no-go. So we're kind of stumped."

The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin government did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

Fortunately for the brothers, the N.W.T. government has announced some financial support options. Milo should qualify for the Evacuee Income Disruption Support Program, and Daemon is hoping to apply for income assistance so he can qualify for an emergency allowance.

But in the meantime, it's been an incredibly stressful time for Daemon and Milo.

"Just recently moving to Yellowknife and being stretched enough already was stressful," said Milo. "It's a lot, I'm overwhelmed."

'It feels like post-traumatic stress'

Shanna Schaefer evacuated from Fort Smith and then from Hay River with her family. The sudden exit from Hay River left her shaken, especially after hearing howdangerous it was for others.

"I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. It's the uncertainty, the trauma," said Schaefer. "That was so scary!"

Because they didn't want to take immediate resources away from those who needed them more, they chose to pay for their accommodations as they drove south looking for refuge.

"I'm lucky that I have some savings, but my worry is that I'm going to go through that money," said Schaefer.

Schaefer hoped that support would be announced eventually, and that they would potentially be reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses — a hope that was initially dashed when the territorial government announced there would be no financial aid for evacueeswho organized their own travel and accommodations.

Schaefer was already trying to put on a brave face for her young son. The announcement was another blow to an already stressful couple of weeks.

"It feels like post-traumatic stress. The smallest inconvenience now is so triggering, " she said. "Like my hotel key didn't work, and I'm like bawling my eyes out."

The about-face late Friday, when the N.W.T. government announced a one-time payment for evacuees who drove themselves out of their communities, was welcome news for Schaefer — but she said the contradictions and inconsistency from officials have added to her anxiety.

"It definitely was stressful," she said. "Especially hearing one day there was no funding for people who evacuated with their own means, and then the next day we heard that they were recanting what was said."

In a statement about financial assistance, N.W.T. Finance department spokesperson Todd Sasaki said the government is encouraging residents to apply for the Evacuation Travel Support Program and Evacuee Income Disruption Support Program.

He also said the government is working to put the travel support program in place as quickly as possible, but acknowledged there have been "growing pains" in that process.

Schaefer is also looking toward the future. She hopes to see more financial relief announced for everyone dealing with the pressure of the evacuation, especially if people from Fort Smith are expected to be gone for another few weeks.

She also wants to see more done for mental health, and a real plan to prepare everyone for the potential emotional response once they get back home.

"It's going to be overwhelming, I think, once everything kind of settles down," Schaefer said. "I know I feel super traumatized."


  • An earlier version of this story stated the Red Cross did not respond to a request for comment. It's been updated with the organization's statement that questions should be directed toward the City of Edmonton.
    Sep 01, 2023 7:14 PM CT


Carla Ulrich

Video journalist

Carla Ulrich is a video journalist with CBC North in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Reach her at carla.ulrich@cbc.ca.

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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