HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — The mayor of a northwestern Alberta town says the threat from a powerful wildfire burning three kilometres away has not passed and warns evacuees they could be out longer than expected.
High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer told a news conference Wednesday that firefighting is going well, but everyone is at the mercy of the weather.
“I want to stress the importance to everyone, especially evacuees, that the danger has not passed nor has it diminished,” McAteer said. “We know based on recent experiences of Slave Lake and of Fort McMurray that wildfires are highly unpredictable and can change at any moment.
“I am pleading with everyone to be patient and that the evacuation of High Level will continue into the foreseeable future.”
Nearly 5,000 people cleared out of High Level and nearby First Nations on the long weekend with flames from the out-of-control Chuckegg Creek fire licking at the southern edge of the community, located 750 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
Evacuee Stefanie Brown said she’s more concerned for the safety of those fighting the blaze than she is about the townhouse she left behind.
“If it burns down our stuff, we’ll buy more,” Brown said Wednesday after a 1,300-kilometre drive south to Medicine Hat, Alta., where her mother lives.
The school teacher’s car was gassed up, her electronic devices charged and her bags packed by the time her phone blared Monday with an emergency alert that High Level was being evacuated.
She knew from experience how important it was to be prepared.
Brown had to flee Medicine Hat during massive floods in 2013 and forgot to pack key documents and mementoes from her late father. Luckily, her second-floor condo stayed dry.
“The first time I didn’t listen when they told us to get prepared, and then, when it was time to go, I didn’t even know what to put in my car,” she recalled.
This time, Brown, her two children and two dogs piled into her hatchback to make it to safety.
Authorities handled the evacuation well, she added. “They did it with enough advance notice and time that people didn’t panic.”
Fire officials said Wednesday they are continuing to prepare the town for any potential shift in winds.
“The High Level area has been experiencing drought-like conditions for quite some time,” said Scott Elliot with Alberta Wildfire. “The fire has been exhibiting extreme behaviour for multiple days and has made control efforts extremely difficult.”
The good news, Elliot said, is that the spread has been away from the community due to the winds.
“This has given us an opportunity to put some preparation and control measures in place in order to manage the threat to the town,” he said.
Officials said they’ve been able to protect power poles to the west and the south, and also created a fireguard between the fire and the town.
Winds were expected to shift slightly in the coming days and push smoke from the fires south rather than north.
“The forecast, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be giving us a break,” said Elliot. “We are not really getting a big blast of rain that we are going to need.”
If they get a west wind on the fire, he said, it will again put the town and other nearby communities at increased risk.
The blaze has now eaten its way through about 920 square kilometres of forest, which is an area bigger than the size of Calgary.
Alberta Wildfire had 76 firefighters and 24 helicopters battling the blaze. Some 110 firefighters were working to protect structures in High Level and properties in Mackenzie County.
Another 60 emergency service volunteers, as well as RCMP and Sheriffs, are patrolling the community to keep it safe.
Several restaurants have also remained open and were busy Wednesday serving firefighters, police officers, helicopter pilots and machinery operators.
Leslie Snyder, whose family has owned the Tim Hortons for about five years, said six employees volunteered to stay behind during the evacuation. Her husband, their son and a friend were also working.
“It’s an honour and a privilege to be included as an essential service in such a traumatic time in the life of our community,” she said.
Snyder said there’s smoke in the air, but no plumes or flames are visible.
“We cannot see the fire from town and we feel very safe here.”
Firefighters from British Columbia were due to arrive later on Wednesday. Others are expected later this week from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
— By Colette Derworiz in Edmonton and Lauren Krugel in Calgary
The Canadian Press