Wildfire in Alberta, Canada, burns more than 100 000 acres, surrounding areas evacuated
High Level and surrounding communities in northwestern Alberta, Canada, were placed on a mandatory evacuation order due to an out-of-control wildfire that was burning about three kilometres south of the town on Monday, 20 May 2019. The fire had burnt more than 100 000 acres by Tuesday, 21 May 2019. Premier Jason Kenney tweeted on Monday night that he had spoken with High Level’s mayor, Crystal McAteer, who told him the town had been successfully evacuated. The evacuation order was put in place at 16h00 on Monday. About 4 000 residents from High Level were told to leave their homes and go to reception centres in Slave Lake and High Prairie.
Another 750 people from surrounding communities, including the Bushe River Reserve, were told to register at the La Crete Heritage Centre. Residents of the Bushe River Reserve were also asked to first register at the Four Chiefs Complex before leaving.
The town was to be evacuated in stages and people were asked to turn off gas appliances, turn down their hot water and lock their doors and windows before leaving their homes. Residents should prepare to be out of their homes for a minimum of 72 hours, said Alberta Wildfire incident commander Scott Elliot.
High Level resident Marc Metacat said Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were on his street on Monday night, ensuring people were following the evacuation order. “I’m watching two rangers walk down the road, knocking on houses right now. There’s sprinkler systems right behind my house. We live right on the edge of town, nothing but trees right behind our house,” he said. “Pretty much mad panic. Don’t have a lot of everything, just what we could fit in the vehicles… there’s four (vehicles) and a horse trailer.”
People who were unable to self-evacuate were told to head to the Spirit of the North Community School, where transportation was to be made available.
The wildfire south of High Level is located west of Highway 35 and south of Highway 58.
Due to what Elliot called “extreme burning conditions,” which included dry, hot and windy conditions, the wildfire has grown to about 69 000 hectares in size by Monday afternoon. “The fire continued to spread at night but what happened was the wind speed died down and that allowed the size of the fire to start moving in a little bit more of a meaningful way towards the community so what was initially a more comfortable buffer between the fire and the town, got reduced due to the overnight fire spread,” Elliot said. “So it was felt that because of the proximity of the fire towards town, if there was a subtle shift… that would create the likelihood of rapid fire spread towards the community.
“The bulk of the fire spread has been to the north and west and that’s taking the main spread of the fire away from the town of High Level but we felt that in working with the mayor, that the level of threat presented by this fire to the community, warranted the decision that the mayor and council undertook today,” Elliot said.
Sprinklers were being used throughout High Level and at the Tolko lumber mill on Monday as a protection operation.
McAteer said this is the first time the town has been evacuated because of a wildfire in the 42 years she’s lived in the community. “We were close in 2015… But luckily, once again, with all the resources that came in, we were able to get that fire under control.” The evacuation order came after wildfire officials said early on Monday morning that there was no immediate threat to the community of High Level. Alberta wildfire officials said the fire crossed Highway 58 on Sunday and was moving in a northwestern direction.
All of Mackenzie County, including the town of High Level, was without power on Monday. ATCO was working to restore power but officials warned at 10h30 on Monday that the power outage was expected to last six to eight hours.
Deb Stecyk lives in west High Level, not far from the hospital. She said Sunday afternoon and evening were “very eerie” around town. “The columns of smoke just went up really high…. It looked like the fire was just on the outskirts of the town,” she said. They lost power on Monday at around 9h00, Stecyk said. “Some of us have generators. My neighbour has two generators going. My husband has a generator going too. We’re just using it for essential things though. We have it hooked up the fridge and that’s about it,” Stecyk said. Her family began packing up pictures, passports, food, water and their pets shortly after. She said everything else can be left behind.
“We have a dog and a cat and we’ve got our kennels out. We’re loading the vehicle with just essential stuff,” she said. “You just go from one task to another. You’re really numb.” Stecyk said some of her neighbours were packing up their trailers, adding other residents left High Level on Sunday. “You can see everybody is scurrying around, trying to decide what they should and shouldn’t take,” she said.
Highway 58 remained closed on Monday between High Level and the Chinchaga River Bridge. Highway 35 was also closed about five kilometres south of High Level to 30 kilometres south of the town.
A fire ban remained in place Monday for most of northern Alberta, including Mackenzie County and the Town of High Level. “Right now there is not a plan in place to lift the fire ban,” Derek Gagnon, provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said at 9h00 on Monday. “The conditions in northern Alberta have not improved in a way that would allow us to take that fire ban off. We continue to see warm, hot, dry temperatures and strong winds. All of those things together make for extremely dangerous wildfire conditions.”
The evacuation plan will be evaluated as the wildfire threat changes, Alberta Wildfire said at a 16h30 media availability.
Smoke from the northern Alberta wildfires prompted Environment Canada to issue a special air quality statement for parts of Mackenzie County and County of Northern Lights. The weather agency said the smoke resulted in poor quality and reduced visibility. “The smoke will continue to push northward today towards the town of High Level,” Environment Canada said on its website on Monday. “Winds are expected to shift this evening and push the smoke to the east, towards the BC border.”
Since 1 March 2019, Gagnon said there have been 409 wildfires in Alberta, about 70 percent of which were human caused. The cause of this wildfire is still under investigation.
As of 14h00 on Monday, the province said six wildfires were burning out of control in Alberta. Agreements are in place with other provinces and countries to bring in more resources to help battle the wildfires, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said in a media release. “This time of year, the risk of wildfires is very high with dry windy conditions. This is why it’s so important for Albertans to exercise extreme caution while in our forested areas,” Dreeshen said.
Source: Global News