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High Level fire chief reflects on most challenging firefight of his career

Firefighters battle the Chuckegg Creek wildfire near Paddle Prairie Mé​​​​​​​tis Settlement, where 16 homes were destroyed. (Rodney Schmidt)

High Level’s fire chief is breathing a sigh of relief as people return to the community amid the biggest firefight of his career.

Chief Rodney Schmidt has spent the past two weeks battling the 275,000-hectare Chuckegg Creek wildfire that forced thousands of people to flee their homes in northern Alberta.

The fire is “probably the biggest I’ve seen in my 30-year career of doing this,” he said. “Our firefighters hit it head on.

“I’m still sitting in amazement of the dedication of our crew. They just wouldn’t quit.”

Schmidt is in charge of structural protection for the massive wildfire, adding supports like sprinklers to communities, including High Level and the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement.

high level fire chief rodney schmidt

High Level Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt welcomed residents home Monday at a community gathering. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The fire made its way into the settlement quickly last week, destroying 16 homes.

“Those firefighters did an amazing job — nothing short of heroic in my mind,” Schmidt said. “We lost 16 homes, but … there’s well over 120 homes that they saved. And that fight continued on for several days.”

The first 30 hours of the fight were the hardest, he said, as getting resources to Paddle Prairie wasn’t possible. Roads were closed, power lines had fallen on the highway and travel by air was impossible due to smoke.

paddle prairie fire

Firefighters battle the flames of the fire near Paddle Prairie. (Rodney Schmidt)

‘Our only chance’

Chuckegg is the biggest wildfire Schmidt has ever come up against.

“When it gets that size, it just does what it wants to do,” he said.

The Town of High Level had an extensive wildfire plan in place well before the blaze began, he said. They learned from other communities that have been affected by wildfire, including Fort McMurray.

By evacuating the community early, crews were able to focus all of their attention on tackling the fire, Schmidt said. The key to protecting homes in High Level was controlled burns.

“What saved the town was our decision with Alberta Wildfire to remove some of the fuels right on the edge of town,” he said.

“It was a calculated risk for sure, but it was one we thought was really our only chance to save the community.”

Residents of High Level and the surrounding area were able to return home Monday after the May 20 evacuation order was lifted. But Schmidt said a risk still exists.

high level fire

The Chuckegg Creek wildfire burned 275,000 hectares of land. (Rodney Schmidt)

“Our work here isn’t done yet. Even though the community can come home to High Level — we’re super happy about that — we still have resources here and we’re still going to be working every day until this is taken care of,” he said.

Crews are watching the east edge of the fire, which could be blown into an area of forest inaccessible by road. While the threat isn’t urgent, Schmidt said crews are wary of wind potentially pushing the flames across the Peace River, toward communities like Fort Vermilion and La Crête.

“Fortunately, the weather is cooperating right now,” he said. “It’s giving forestry a bit of time to … hit it with air assets and try and push in a guard around it with heavy equipment.”

After working several 20-hour days, the chief and the rest of the High Level fire department took Tuesday off.

“It really was a community effort,” Schmidt said. “The town needs to be really proud of how they banded together to make sure this was handled well.”

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