Tray Halkett hopes his stuffed blue teddy bear is still sitting in his La Ronge bedroom. In the rushed evacuation from the northern Saskatchewan community two weeks ago as massive forest fires burned nearby, Baby Jen the bear was left behind.
“She protects me in the night while I sleep. I miss her,” the 7-year-old said, waiting at an evacuee centre in Cold Lake, Alta. He’s slept with the bear since he was a baby, but for the past two weeks, he’s snoozed alone on a cot. The boy hopes soon to be reunited with his bear and a community spared from the flames.
Tray is one of more than 13,000 people displaced by the largest evacuation effort in Saskatchewan’s history. As of Friday, 636 wildfires had been detected across a wide swath of the province’s centre and north, consuming vast hectares of sprawling forest.
The air above La Ronge was soupy for a week before a mandatory evacuation order, thick with a suffocating smoke that refused to clear away. Wildfires were burning to the north, within a few kilometres of the town’s airport. To the east, more fires burned across the lake that is La Ronge’s namesake. To the south and the west, more fires.
“We’ve had fires before, but this felt a little different. The smoke was so thick for so long,” Rory Fuller, a father of three who’d been in the Cold Lake shelter for 12 days, said on Friday.
A knock on Mr. Fuller’s door sent his family into a scramble on the evening of July 4. A police officer was standing on his porch, telling him that a mandatory evacuation order had been enacted and he had only minutes to pack up and leave.
Some had more warning. Joslynn Thedorf kept the radio on all week, listening to updates on the progress of the fire. When the mandatory order came, she and her two-year-old daughter Harley started filling their pickup truck.
“My first thought after the evacuation order was ‘What can I grab?’ I had some time so I was able to fill the truck, but I grabbed pictures first, then a quilt from my great grandmother,” Ms. Thedorf said.
Like many of the 700 people who were eventually housed in the municipal recreation centre in Cold Lake, Mr. Fuller and his children arrived after a nearly nine-hour bus ride with the clothes on their backs and little more.
“We were rushed out of town. We only had 20 minutes and there was a police officer standing at the door and waiting,” he said, returning to the shelter with a bag of donated clothes slung over his shoulder. “It’s been pretty stressful, especially on our kids. They want to go home, so they’ve really started acting out.”
After two weeks of sleeping on cots in gymnasiums alongside hundreds of their neighbours, the evacuees from northern Saskatchewan say they miss the comfort and privacy of their beds more than anything else.
“We’re in there pretty close together. If you turn over while you’re sleeping your arm will hit the next person over. There’s just enough room for your cot, your bag goes under it,” Ms. Thedorf said.
“Everyone is wearing thin on everyone’s nerves,” said Mr. Fuller.
“I miss privacy, and maybe some mommy and daddy time.”
The local Red Cross has sectioned the evacuees into three different areas – referred to as “pods” by security personnel. Given a green, red or orange armband, evacuees are kept to their designated areas at night. With security personnel on walkways above the arena floor where cots are found, some evacuees such as John Kemp have complained that the space feels like a holding area.
“It’s really hectic in there, you can’t relax or anything,” Mr. Kemp, who struggled with his cane and was given a walker to help navigate the tight spaces between the cots, said. “There are crying kids all night. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep.”
Tori McKenzie sleeps wrapped in blankets on the floor beside her cot. She says she’s afraid her nine-month-old son Asher could be hurt if he falls out of the camp bed they share. Her son was sick, is still feverish, but near the end of his treatment routine.
“We had been staying in hotels because he’s sick, but people weren’t looking after their kids, so a bunch of us got moved back here,” she said. “I really don’t mind it, I’m happy to stay as long as we need.”
After two weeks of waiting, some of the 8,000 evacuees still in shelters in Cold Lake and the Saskatchewan communities of Prince Albert, North Battleford and Saskatoon were smiling on Thursday evening. Aided by heavy rains, many of the fires have been stabilized. While smoke is expected to linger for weeks or months as fire crews continue to battle the flames, the evacuation order on La Ronge was lifted Friday afternoon.
Tray will finally be going home to find his stuffed bear.