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‘It was a helluva experience’: Alberta wildfire takes toll on firefighters, evacuees

Harold Hynes, who has lived in High Level for 13 years, places a call to his brother in Newfoundland on Wednesday. Hynes hadn’t yet been able to talk to his family to tell them he was safe. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Harold Hynes left a phone message for his brother back home in Newfoundland.

“The fire’s on right now and we had to get evacuated,” he said into the cellphone. “I’m in La Crete, Alberta, but everything’s fine, don’t worry about it. … It was a helluva experience, I’ll tell you that, sir. But I’m fine.”

Fine is a matter of perspective for Hynes and several hundred other residents who left their homes in High Level, Alta., on Monday and made their way to La Crete, a community of 2,000 located 135 kilometres away.

The evacuation order was issued when the massive, out-of-control Chuckegg Creek Wildfire crept to within three kilometres of High Level. Since then, the fire has grown to 92,000 hectares but the main area of spread on the northwest side away from the town, located 450 kilometres north of Grande Prairie.  

la crete wildfire evacuees

Mackenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen, second from left, is in La Crete, Alta., where more than 200 evacuees from High Level, Alta., are staying. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Almost 5,000 people in total have found safety in Slave Lake, High Prairie, Grande Prairie, Peace River as well as in the hamlet of La Crete, where the residents have pulled together to provide food, beds and comfort.

“From our county staff to elected officials to community members to contractors and volunteers, everybody’s pulled together and done what they could, under the circumstances, to house everybody and feed everybody,” said Josh Knelsen, the Mackenzie County reeve.

“Nobody’s hungry. Everybody’s got a place to sleep. It might not be as nice as what a person would like but it works.”

Memories of the wildfires that devastated Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray in 2016 are all too near, for both the evacuees and for those helping to care for them, Knelsen said.

high level fire

The Chuckegg Creek fire is seen from the air near the town of High Level, Alta., on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Government of Alberta/The Canadian Press)

Hynes was at his job at the Tolko Industries mill when the power went out on Monday. Crews got the fire hoses ready and by the time Hynes left for the day, the evacuation had been ordered.

“Bumper to bumper leaving,” he said.

At his hotel room, he grabbed a suitcase but left most of his personal items – like photographs – behind. Then hopped on a bus bound for La Crete.

“Hospitality and everything in this place is out of this world. People are great. Red Cross is great. Everything is great,” Hynes said. “We’ve all come together, all nationalities, all sorts … it opens up everybody’s eyes.”

The decision to evacuate the town before the situation became too dangerous was praised by Knelsen, who joins Premier Jason Kenney and provincial wildfire officials who have repeatedly expressed their thanks and admiration.

“You can’t wait till the very last moment,” said Knelsen, who helped in fighting the Fort McMurray blaze. “Fort McMurray, they got very lucky. Nobody got hurt there and it was amazing. But you wouldn’t do that very many times without having different results.”

Firefighters making inroads

Crews battling the wildfires in northwestern Alberta received help today from hundreds of new firefighters making their way from other provinces — and from the weather.

British Columbia is sending 267 wildfire service personnel, including 230 firefighters, who will arrive today and Thursday. More help is also on the way from Ontario and Nova Scotia.

The extra help will bolster the current forces and allow exhausted firefighters and support staff to rest, Derek Gagnon, an Alberta Wildfire information officer, told CBC News Wednesday.

jason kenney high level fire

Premier Jason Kenney, centre, meets with first responders and staff at the emergency operations centre in High Level on Tuesday. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

“The intent is to replace but also to replenish,” Gagnon said.

“And it’s not just firefighters who will be replaced here, it’s also support staff who have been working extremely long hours behind the scenes.”

With the unpredictable nature of wildfires, the B.C. Wildfire Service gave a nod to the importance of provinces supporting each other when the need arises. It noted the “invaluable assistance Alberta has provided to B.C. during the last two wildfire seasons, which were the worst in the province’s history.”

high level wildfire jason kenney

Kenney flew to High Level Tuesday where he met with fire crews. ‘Amazing response from firefighters and first responders,’ he tweeted Tuesday evening. (Twitter)

Despite heavy smoke, officials say a lighter wind out of the northeast and a slight increase in the relative humidity has allowed for great progress on reining in the wildfire.

“Both of these things are going to lessen the fire intensity, which is good news for our firefighters out there,” Gagnon said.

Mayor concerned for seniors

The government is still urging all evacuees to check in one of the five registration centres in the province. As of Wednesday morning, about 800 people had registered.

High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer is particularly keen to know the whereabouts of residents of White Spruce Village, a housing development for independent seniors.

“I have some concerns about the residents of White Spruce Village,” McAteer wrote in a Facebook post late Tuesday. “So far, only two seniors have registered at the evacuation centres.”

wildfire map

The Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level is the largest active wildfire in Alberta.

McAteer also noted that there are volunteers in High Level who will check on pets that were left behind. Residents can call the town at 780-926-2201 to request assistance, she said.

The centres are located at the Slave Lake Legacy Centre, the High Prairie Sports Palace, Grande Prairie Regional College, Peace River Misery Mountain Ski Hill and the La Crete Heritage Centre.

Evacuees still looking for a place to stay should head to High Prairie, Grande Prairie or Peace River. Slave Lake hotels are full.

Provincial fire officials on Tuesday were grateful for winds that have been pushing the fire away from the community, and they expected that to continue for the next few days.

Environment Canada said winds will push smoke into the Peace River and Grande Prairie regions, which will cause  poor air quality and reduced visibility.

Scott Elliott, incident commander for Alberta Wildfire, said the weather is helping but conditions are still desperately dry and fire danger for the region remains high.

“We have not been able to establish any sort of containment on the east side of the fire, west of the town of High Level,” Elliott said Wednesday at a news conference in the town.

“The initial threat that provoked the need for the evacuation … has not been eliminated in any way,” he said.

“The only thing we have going for us right now that is preventing the fire from making an aggressive run into town is the wind direction. As everyone knows, wind is highly variable.”

On Tuesday, McAteer said evacuees should be prepared to be gone from their homes for up to five days, because power service is disrupted in High Level and La Crete.

Atco said more than 50 employees and contractors are working to restore service, but warned it could be intermittent over the next few days.

Late Tuesday, it managed to restore provisional electricity to High Level and expected to get La Crete and other nearby communities back online by midnight.

“Due to the unpredictable nature of the fire, power restoration may be intermittent over the coming hours and days. Large-scale backup generation is currently being secured and should be available by the end of the week to support priority operations as determined by the town and region,” the company said in a statement.

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