It’s been two weeks since out-of-control wildfires began forcing evacuation orders in parts of Alberta and the situation remains critical.
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“The wildfire situation is extremely volatile,” said Colin Blair with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency on Sunday afternoon.
“Our crews have had the opportunity to build fire guards and… for the vast majority, those are holding,” said Josee St-Onge, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire.
“We are expecting challenging conditions to continue and that will be the case for the next few days as the hot and dry conditions persist.”
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It was on April 30 that parts of Yellowhead County west of Edmonton were ordered to evacuate because of a wildfire threatening the community. Dozens of homes have since been destroyed in Wildwood, Shining Bank and Evansburg areas.
On May 3, thousands of residents of Fox Creek in northern Alberta were forced to flee the flames. Roughly 100 structures were burned there.
Then, on May 5, Edson, a town west of Edmonton, was evacuated.
A provincial state of emergency was declared on Saturday, May 5.
As of Sunday, there were 19 local states of emergency in place, as well as five band council resolutions. There were 14 evacuation orders in place, affecting 19,342 Albertans, an increase from Saturday’s total because of three new evacuation orders in Rainbow Lake, Sturgeon Lake First Nation and Leduc County.
Alberta Wildfire said there were a total of 87 wildfires burning across the province, 24 of which were listed as out of control.
So far this year, there have been 451 wildfires in Alberta, burning 521,000 hectares.
“We are continuing to see hot and dry conditions… with little chance of rain,” St-Onge said.
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There are 1,500 Alberta wildland firefighters battling the various blazes and 800 people from other agencies across North America helping in the fight, including 200 wildland firefighters from the U.S. and 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The fire danger was considered extreme again Sunday, St-Onge said, adding that the peak risk is still ahead.
“The heat event that we’re seeing in the province is starting to impact the south as well, so that means that conditions are drying out and wildfire danger is rising.”
St-Onge said the fire risk is still not as extreme as it is in the north.
“We position our resources in strategic places so they’re able to react quickly to new wildfire starts. We’ll be analyzing the situation in the coming days, seeing where the fire danger is the highest and moving our resources around. Even though most of resources, obviously right now, are concentrated in the Boreal Forest, we still have crews that are in position in our Rocky Mountain and our Calgary forest areas.”
She said if wildfires started growing quickly in the south, resources would have to be repositioned. Support coming from other jurisdictions could help as well, St-Onge added.
“We do feel within North America and all the resources that are available to us, we’ll be able to keep getting enough people to continue fighting these wildfires as the situation evolves.”
Wildfire danger remains high in Alberta; heat threatens south
She urged Albertans to remain extremely vigilant by following province-wide fire and off-highway vehicle bans in order to prevent sparking any new fires.
Blair said people in areas that are threatened should prepare in advance to evacuate, including having an evacuation kit ready.
“Everyone should know what to do, where to go and how to stay in touch with each other for those who are not together or at home when an evacuation order is issued.”
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The long waits and uncertainty is beginning to wear on some Albertans.
Residents of the Town of Fox Creek have been out of their homes for a week.
“We’re on Day seven, so people are getting exhausted,” Mayor Sheila Gilmour told Global News from the Whitecourt reception centre. “It’s a long time to be out of your home and unsure about when you’ll be able to go back.
“The roller coaster of emotions has been interesting this week.
“We’ve seen everything: frustration, upset, devastated. All of them because (at) every given moment, you have no idea.”
As of Saturday, the wildfire was still out of control and displayed some expected behaviour. It also grew outwards a little bit, away from the community, Gilmour said.
There are lots of fire professionals working out of the emergency operations centre, she said, and the addition of military troops and firefighters from other communities.
“The amount of manpower has been growing steadily over the week,” Gilmour said. “They wanted to see how the fire was going to react to the heat dome… as they’re also trying to fight it.”
Still, everyone is worried about what more hot, dry and windy conditions will mean.
“They’re definitely, I’m sure, nervous,” Gilmour said. “I’m nervous about what this heat is going to bring.”
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After hosting evacuees from Rainbow Lake and Fox Lake, High Level was preparing to accommodate even more.
“We started setting up beds because we were told that 250 evacuees were coming from Garden River,” High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said. “In the meantime, 1,000 from Chateh were evacuated to High Level. We have people in our arena, people in our curling rink, people in the friendship centre, people out at the campsites, at the golf course, and at the school now. We have been using every available space.”
While the town doesn’t want to turn anyone away, McAteer admits High Level is straining at the seams.
“I know how people feel about leaving the community that is close to them. They feel disjointed and they like to be together as communities,” she said.
“There is a lot of — I don’t want to call it stress — pressure on our team. We’re a small town,” McAteer added.
“We’ve been lobbying our government for an evacuation centre and this certainly was a year to prove that we needed it up here in the north. We know we could do a much better job of medical services and veterinary services and housing and food if we had a centre where everyone could be together.”
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Around the County of Grande Prairie, Reeve Bob Marshall is keeping an eye on the winds and the heat.
“Our crews have made significant gains on the hot spots,” he said Sunday. “There are still a number of hot spots they’re tackling. The heat is another issue. With our crews on the ground, they can’t just work in T shirts and shorts. They have protective clothing. That makes this extremely difficult for them… it’s even hotter. They’ve got to watch out for heat stroke.”
Marshall said the winds are predicted to be more erratic on Monday.
“It could turn on a dime on us. Mother Nature has a huge role to play.”
He said the approximately 100 military personnel have been a huge help.
“They’re assisting our firefighters with the hotspots. You have to dig them out and then douse them with water. We’ve also got resources from the Calgary fire department, Chestermere, Strathmore, Vulcan, there’s a lot of resources that have come in fro the rest of the province.
“We are so grateful for that help. Our (firefighters) were getting so tired after last weekend. So when those resources arrived on Monday, it was a huge relief,” Marshall said.
For a complete list of evacuation orders, visit the Alberta Emergency Alert website.
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