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Alberta Man charged with fraud for pretending to be Fort McMurray evacuee

The Abasand neighbourhood on the west side of Fort McMurray is seen on May 13 after being ravaged by wildfires.

Jason Franson/REUTERS

When Darryl Rondeau and his partner arrived in the small Alberta town of Claresholm during the evacuation of Fort McMurray earlier this month due to a spreading wildfire, they were given accommodation, meals, clothes and even work boots from residents.

The community of about 3,500 people, located about 105 kilometres south of Calgary, continued a streak of generosity that was in line with Canada's response to the disaster.

In an interview with the Claresholm Local Press, Mr. Rondeau spoke of having fled Fort McMurray "with fire on our tail" and 30 minutes' notice to depart.

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Given what they had left, he told the newspaper, Claresholm was a relief. "It's been a really friendly place," he said.

But the RCMP allege that Mr. Rondeau, 45, did not flee the wildfire, had never lived in Fort McMurray and had no ties to Alberta at all.

Mr. Rondeau, of Victoria, has now been charged with one count of fraud under $5,000. He has been held in custody due to "other matters before the courts," according to an RCMP statement issued Sunday. He made his first court appearance on May 16.

The Mounties say they began a fraud investigation after receiving a complaint from Family and Community Support Services in Claresholm on May 12 that a couple "might be pretending to be evacuees" from the Fort McMurray wildfire.

"The couple simply took advantage of the people in the community of Claresholm who thought they were helping people who lost their home in the wildfires," the RCMP alleged in their statement.

The statement goes on to say that no one else has been charged "as yet," and that the matter is still under investigation.

The allegation comes as Canadians have shown generosity and compassion since the wildfire forced more than 80,000 people from their homes in Fort McMurray, the centre of Canada's oil industry.

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Earlier this month, the Canadian Red Cross reported the largest-ever response to a disaster in this country. In 10 days, the organization raised $86-million, and immediately began distributing $50-million to evacuees in shares of $600 an adult and $300 a child. The federal and Alberta governments have committed to matching public donations to the Red Cross.

In Claresholm, Councillor Jamie Cutler said on Sunday that residents of the community have been generous in donating goods or funds to help evacuees. They have done so individually or through local businesses and agencies.

Still, Mr. Cutler said, the allegations are "a mind-boggling thing."

While "disheartening or discouraging," he said, Claresholm is very supportive about helping those in need and that will continue – though the "good-hearted" may want to focus on making donations through reputable organizations such as the Red Cross.

Sergeant Barry Larocque of the RCMP in Edmonton said the public should not be afraid to ask questions and carefully consider the answers when donating money. "Don't be afraid to trust your instincts," he said.

Sgt. Larocque said he would not necessarily say it is best to go through established agencies such as the Red Cross, but they are able to ensure that help goes to those who need it. "Sometimes it's best to trust those organizations," he said.

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Based on his policing experience in small towns, he said he expected the charges against Mr. Rondeau would have an impact. "All small-town communities have their confidence in people shaken when stuff like this happens," he said.

As of Sunday, the Fort McMurray wildfire was still "out of control" – covering 522,892 hectares, including 2,496 hectares in Saskatchewan, according to an overview of the situation issued by the Alberta government. "Fire conditions remain extreme in northeastern Alberta," the summary said.

A preliminary plan to allow residents of Fort McMurray to return home remained on track, and initial returns could start on June 1.

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