By Jeremy Appel
(AJNews) – Yellowknife wildfire evacuee Janine McKall, who’s part of the northern city’s small Jewish community, arrived in Edmonton, where she was born and raised, with her two kids on Aug. 17.
She said the city “has been really great” at creating a welcoming environment, giving evacuee families free admission to various amenities to keep the kids busy and their minds off the devastation back home.
“We don’t have a lot of stuff like this in Yellowknife, so this is huge for them. They’re getting memories and experiences they wouldn’t get otherwise,” McKall told Alberta Jewish News.
McKall, who works in social services, moved to Yellowknife a decade ago. “We’re lucky enough that we’ve been staying with my parents,” she said.
She described a sense of “panic” back in Yellowknife. “It’s a very, very isolated community,” McKall explained. “There’s one road in and one road out of Yellowknife. We’ve hosted a bunch of evacuees already in Yellowknife, so it was hard to be on the other end of it.”
The situation up north changed rapidly, she said. At 10:30 a.m. on the day she and her kids, ages five and eight, evacuated, they received a notification instructing them to stay put. By 3:30 p.m., the wind started blowing the fire closer to the city and some people began evacuating, but there wasn’t an official evacuation order until 7 p.m. that evening.
“It was like watching something out of a movie. Every car on my street just pulled out and started driving at the same time,” McKall recalled.
McKall and her children took all their valuables and flew down to Edmonton. Her husband, who’s a Mountie, stayed back in Yellowknife.
Once they arrive in Edmonton, evacuated families need to register at the evacuation centre at the Edmonton EXPO Centre, where the Red Cross is on site. If they aren’t fortunate enough to have family they can stay with, they have the option of a complimentary hotel stay or to stay at the EXPO Centre.
The evacuation centre also offers day care for dogs, which McKall said is immensely helpful, with so many pet owners in Yellowknife. “It’s been really hard to accommodate an evacuation with all of those animals,” she said.
Regardless of where they stay, once they register as evacuees, they get a wristband that gives them free or discounted admission to TELUS World of Science, Fort Edmonton Park, the Aug. 27 Edmonton Elks game against the Ottawa Redblacks, the Muttart Conservatory, and any city recreation centre.
When she spoke to AJNews, McKall was on her way to taking her kids to the Edmonton Corn Maze, where they’re meeting the families of some of her youngest child’s kindergarten classmates.
Re/Max Field, where the Edmonton Riverhawks recently finished their baseball season, was opened one day for evacuees, with slip slides and bouncy castles on the field for kids, as well as a catered meal from Boston Pizza and a street performer from Edmonton Fringe.
It’s unclear when precisely the Yellowknife evacuees will be able to return home.
“We got more precipitation than we expected last week, which is great. But apparently things have really picked back up today,” McKall said on Aug. 25. “It’s quite smoky and there’s been quite a few flare ups because it’s hot and windy.”
There’s a Facebook page for Yellowknife evacuees to support each other, with those who have family who stayed back sending them to check on worried evacuees’ homes.
McKall said there are 10 Jewish families in Yellowknife, three of whom are staying in Edmonton.
Jewish communal life in Yellowknife is limited. There’s no synagogue. On the High Holidays, McKall and her family usually get together with her parents.
Yellowknife’s Jewish families, however, make an effort to host each other for dinner periodically.
“It’s nice because now we all have kids who are similar age, so there is a little bit more of a community than there had been otherwise,” she said.
McKall had a cultural Jewish upbringing. She attended Talmud Torah School, and Temple Beth Ora and was a member of BBYO. She said she wants to send her kids to Camp BB Riback when they’re old enough to go to overnight camp.
“I spent probably 17 years there, so they’ll probably go there eventually,” said McKall.
McKall’s children would be at day camp if they weren’t evacuated. She said working remotely while taking on child care duties reminds her of the pandemic.
“I feel like my kids have never not been in a state of emergency,” she said. “But you know what? They’re very close to each other and they get lots of time together, and I get lots of time that I wouldn’t have gotten with them otherwise. So that’s the silver lining.”
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.