La Ronge Co-op manager stays behind to feed frontline firefighters

Manager camps in store parking lot after being evacuated from her home

Margaret Flock could have boarded one of the two-dozen buses that evacuated nearly 1,100 people, including her two teenage sons, out of the Lac La Ronge region in Saskatchewan when wildfires threatened their homes early this month.

But instead, the veteran manager of the La Ronge Co-op Marketplace decided to stay and keep her store open to help feed the hundreds of soldiers, firefighters and volunteers from across Canada helping to battle the blazes that continue to burn north and west of the town of 3,000.

"It's part of doing what we have to do to help serve our community," Flock told Canadian Grocer. "All the restaurants in town are closed, so everyone really appreciates the fact that we've stayed open."

Flock and her husband moved into their fifth-wheel camper in the parking lot of the 33,000-sq.-ft. store after a mandatory evacuation forced them from their home on July 4.

From there they can see the thick black columns of smoke from the fires outside the town and occasionally the glow of flames at night.

She and four Co-op employees–meat manager Perry McCreary, grocery manager Trevor Ylioja, and assistant grocery manager Kirk Fedje, who are living in nearby chalets and condos–have been manning the store for the past two weeks.

Ylioja's wife, who is the branch manager of a local credit union, is handling the cash register.

According to Flock, there are normally 76 full-time and part-time employees at her store, a branch of the Prince Albert Co-op that sells everything from fresh deli, produce and grocery items to sporting goods and seasonal items.

Though business is only a fraction of what it normally is (instead of the five delivery trucks that usually arrive every week, only three have come in the past ten days and were unloaded with the help of volunteers), Flock said the store is providing essential supplies to both locals and the hundreds of firefighters who have continue to arrived in convoys.

"They know we are here," she said.

The store parking lot is notably the mustering point in the morning for Canadian Forces personnel that have been sent to help fight the fires that have burning across much of Western Canada this summer.

"We open at 8 a.m. for them and stay open until they get back, which is usually around 7 p.m.," said Flock, whose has been with the coop for 30 years, the past 21 at the Lac La Ronge store.  "But we're staying right here so we come out whenever anybody needs something."

Like her colleague Adam Luciuk, the manager of the co-op service station and c-store in nearby Air Ronge, Flock said she will keep her store running until the fire threat ends.

"I don't think it'll be over anytime soon," she said.  "Some fires still aren't contained, the winds are still blowing (and) there are flare-ups."

About 13,000 people were forced out of their homes in at least 50 communities in Saskatchewan since evacuations began nearly there weeks ago. On Wednesday about 1,000 people in some communities were told they could go home.

Though happy there has been no loss of life, Flock lamented the damage being wrought on people's homes, on her tourism-dependent community, and on the surrounding nature.

"We live in one of the most beautiful regions of Saskatchewan," she said.  "It's a shame to see it being destroyed like this."

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