‘My heart sank’: KFN residents grieve impact of wildfire on their community

Isabelle Sunrise with her her daughters Des (left) and Piper (right). The family evacuated from their home on May 14. (Carla Ulrich/CBC)

Isabelle Sunrise tried hiding her tears from her daughters when they drove through the Kátł’odeeche First Nation reserve near Hay River, N.W.T., for the first time in three weeks. 

“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.”

Sunrise evacuated from the community on May 14 as a wildfire burned nearby. Days later, it engulfed part of the reserve.

The KFN band office burned down. The office has temporarily been set up at the arena. (Submitted)

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.”

The Yamózha Kúé Society (Dene Cultural Institute) was one of the buildings lost in the fire. Artifacts were saved before the building burned. (Submitted)

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.

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.

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.”

Written by Francis Tessier-Burns with files from Carla Ulrich

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Evacuation order issued for wildfire-threatened Sambaa K’e, N.W.T., CBC News

Norway: Smoke from Canadian wildfires forecast to reach Norway, The Associated Press

Russia: New NOAA report finds vast Siberian wildfires linked to Arctic warming, The Associated Press

SwedenHigh risk of wildfires in many parts of Sweden, including North, Radio Sweden

United States: Wildfires in Anchorage? Climate change sparks disaster fears, The Associated Press

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