ATHABASCA – Sometimes, you can give and give, but bad things still happen to good people, so other good people have to step up when bad things happen.
That is what the family of Evelyn Charlton are hoping will happen, after both the house she was living in and the new house that was being built on the same rural property near Jackfish Lake, burned to the ground Feb. 7, just weeks away from completion.
Charlton (formerly Boucher), 82, is a well-respected Métis elder, is known for her years of volunteer work in northeastern Alberta, particularly in the Anzac, Athabasca and Whitecourt areas.
She moved to the Athabasca area about 15 years ago with her long-time husband, buying property and slowly building a home, sometimes staying in a camper while they worked on the building, said granddaughter Rickie Stetsko. The couple then started working on a new house, but that soon came to a halt.
After her grandfather passed about three years ago, Stetsko says the family pitched in to help complete the new build and her grandma found a new partner in Ted Zachoda, who also joined in getting the house built.
On the morning of Feb. 7, Charlton walked into her kitchen after smelling smoke.
“She just happened to be up and doing something and could smell smoke and was trying to figure out what was going on, and all of a sudden, she looked and saw the entire wall of the kitchen behind her stove was engulfed in flames, said Stetsko, who was on the scene soon after hearing of the blaze at her grandmother’s home.
When she arrived, Charlton was very much in shock.
“It was a terrifying moment for her, and she was just trying to process everything that was going on and was still stuck in that fear of the moment,” said Stetsko.
“Because it happened so fast, all she could grab was her purse and a tray of her beads, she was beading some moccasins. That's all she could grab, she got a winter coat, she was in her pyjamas and couldn't find out her winter shoes in time and was only able to get out in her sandals, with no socks.”
That is all they have left — the fired claimed two houses and everything inside, two vehicles, and sadly, their little dog Scruffy. They are currently staying in an Athabasca hotel.
Firefighting crews from Athabasca, Boyle, Grassland and Colinton all responded to the four-alarm blaze.
“It takes time to get out there definitely,” said Athabasca County Fire Services regional chief Sheldon Schoepp. “It was fully involved when we got there, and it was a defensive fight from the get-go … it was already through the roof and through the walls when we got on scene so it was rocking pretty good.”
A live solar panel array was a concern for firefighters, as it’s not just a matter of flipping a breaker to turn them off. Another concern was three nearby fuel tanks.
“They also had three large propane tanks, very, very close, about five feet from one of the structures that was burning, so that was the incident commander’s No. 1 issue, cooling those tanks down,” said Schoepp.
Charlton has lived a rich life, despite growing up in a convent, amidst the residential school system, where some of her brothers and sisters lived, but once she was out on her own, she was truly out on her own. She cooked in camps for many years, and her free time was consumed with charity and volunteer work — the Salvation Army, Fort McMurray Friendship Centre and Athabasca Native Friendship Centre, to name a few.
“I know she often shared stories of flying into campsites and cooking for people, this has always been something that she relishes, I guess seems to really thrive on feeding everybody,” said Stetsko. “She had seven kids and worked multiple jobs to support her family when they were younger. Yeah, she's a pretty, pretty fearless and brave woman.”
Athabasca Native Friendship Centre executive director Laureen Houle has known Charlton for as long as she has been involved with the friendship centre. Charlton was already an established figure there, teaching beading lessons and baking bannock on a regular basis.
“She's a great lady, super, always wanting to help and she's come up with our family camps, she's been an elder on the board,” said Houle. “She’s our bannock queen, and she makes the most beautiful, beautiful moccasins.”
The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help the couple get back up on their feet to enjoy their retirement. The account is called, “Help Evelyn Charlton Métis elder rebuild her home.” If you would like to donate, but don’t feel comfortable doing it online, Houle said financial donations can also be dropped off at the friendship centre.