The number of Albertans fleeing their homes continues to grow as out-of-control wildfires burn across the province, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes.
The communities of Edson and Drayton Valley are among many where residents have been ordered to evacuate, due to the threat of fast-burning wildfires that continue to be fuelled by hot and dry conditions.
On Friday night, there were more than 100 active fires in the province, with about a third of those being classified as out-of-control.
With so many evacuations underway, it’s difficult to quantify how many people have had to leave their homes, but CBC News estimates that number is more than 20,000. And conditions aren’t likely to improve in the short term.
“We’re expecting very warm weather and extremely strong winds, particularly in the northern half of the province,” Christie Tucker, information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire, told a news conference Friday morning.
“This is not great for wildfire activity that tends to cause very active wildfires and our folks on the ground are going to have to be very careful about their own safety and of course the safety of the communities that they’re protecting.”
On Friday night, the province’s emergency alert website was offline though updates continued to be provided through social media, broadcast on TV and radio and sent through text message.
An Alberta emergency alert was issued for Yellowhead County and Town of Edson Friday at 5:37 p.m. MT.
Residents are advised to evacuate immediately.
The alert impacts Marlboro and Range Road 200 all the way to the east of Yellowhead County. The northern boundary of the evacuation zone is Township Road 550 and southern is Township Road 520. The Town of Edson, which has about 8,000 residents, is included in the evacuation zone.
The wildfire, located 43 kilometres southeast of Edson, covers about 24,000 hectares.
Strathcona County, east of Edmonton, issued an evacuation order for some residents Thursday night just before 8 p.m. The order covers the area between south of Township Road 540 and north of Township Road 534 and east of Range Road 221 and west of Range Road 215. The evacuation zone includes Pleasant View Estates and Newton Estates.
Residents are advised to go to a reception centre at Strathcona County Community Centre in Sherwood Park.
An additional evacuation alert for Strathcona County was issued for everyone in the area between west of Highway 21, east of Range Road 232, south of Township Road 522 and north of Highway 14. That area includes Silver Birch Estates and Colchester Lane. Residents are being told to prepare to leave with 30 minutes notice.
Tucker said temperatures have been 10 to 15 degrees above normal for some time, which has resulted in a lack of green grass and leaves all over the province, leading to dry conditions and vegetation susceptible to catching fire.
As a result of weather conditions, the entire province is under a fire ban. A provincial off-highway vehicle restriction is also in place. The recreational use of off-highway vehicles on public land, including on designated OHV trails, is prohibited.
“As I said, this is a rapidly changing situation today,” Tucker said.
“It’s early in the day. It’s going to get hotter. It’s going to get windier and we’re expecting some extreme wildfire behaviour. So firefighters are on the ready today for what could be a very challenging day.”
A total of 79 firefighters from Ontario and Quebec will arrive in Alberta on Saturday, and further assistance has been requested, Tucker said.
The out-of-control wildfire impacting Fox Lake has become the largest to tackle and has grown to 4,400 hectares.
About 20 homes and other buildings in the community have been destroyed, including the RCMP station and the Northern Store and water plant.
An out-of-control wildfire is burning southeast of Drayton Valley and has grown to 500 hectares. All 7,200 residents were ordered to evacuate the town late Thursday.
The wildfire near Rainbow Lake is 1,822 hectares with 24 firefighters, one aircraft and one helicopter working on the fire.
Alberta Health Services said it is working with continuing care providers to evacuate residents and patients from the Drayton Valley Hospital and Care Centre.
“The majority of patients and residents have been moved already, with completion of evacuation anticipated this afternoon,” James Wood, an AHS spokesperson, said in a statement to CBC.
Acute care patients and continuing care residents have been moved to locations in Central and Edmonton zones, Wood said.
All appointments with laboratory services, diagnostic imaging, mental health and public health have been postponed with plans to reschedule with clients.
AHS is also deploying mobile air quality monitoring, as multiple communities report high levels of smoke and ash residue.
Stephen Lacroix, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said it is vital for residents in impacted areas to tune in to updates as the agency monitors multiple fires across the province.
The province is working with affected municipalities and has been receiving federal help to provide emergency support.
Tucker advised those who are impacted to seek updates on Alberta Wildfire’s website. A status map displays active fires.
Fox Lake response
Dwayne Laboucan, director of emergency management for Little Red River Cree Nation, said the provincial aid response has not strong enough.
“[Officials are] nowhere to be seen … not trying to sound racist or anything but people are forgotten,” he said in an interview for As It Happens, calling on greater provincial and federal support.
Laboucan said the community faces unique challenges — it’s difficult to access the community and some of the evacuees can only communicate in Cree.
Lacroix addressed the challenges of helping a community like Fox Lake evacuate during a volatile situation.
“I think you you need to understand the level of complexity involved in evacuating Fox Lake, with a barge, a dirt road, a cut line to get to a paved road and then head on to down to High Level and Fort Vermilion,” he said.
“Could we do better? I would argue, probably. As these things are always happening at the wrong time of day, under very dire circumstances with people — somewhat traumatized — if not shocked as to what’s happening.”
Some 42 firefighters, five helicopters, two air tankers and six structural protection crews are working on that fire, according to a news release from the province on Friday.
The City of Edmonton has set up a reception centre for evacuees at the Expo Centre in Edmonton. Evacuees have been told to register at Hall C.
Tom Thomson, fire chief with Drayton Valley and Brazeau County fire services, said residents near select areas should be prepared to evacuate within 30 minutes.
These areas include Township Road 42 north to Township Road 494 and Range Road 80 west to Range Road 84.
An Alberta emergency alert issued for Brazeau County and Drayton Valley around 3:30 p.m. MT Friday said all residents in the area of Township Road 482 North to Township Road 494, and North Saskatchewan River West as far as Range Road 84 must evacuate immediately, including everyone in Drayton Valley.
Residents are being told to evacuate on Highway 22 North to Highway 624 and follow 624 to Tomahawk and take 624 East toward Stony Plain.
Fay Barnett and her stepson evacuated from their home in Poplar Ridge Mobile Home Park in Drayton Valley shortly after the alert was issued.
“Hopefully we have houses to go to when we get back,” she said in an interview Friday morning.
She said she hopes the family can return home by Sunday.
An earlier emergency alert told people southwest of Brazeau Dam west of the Brazeau River to evacuate the area. The evacuation area is bounded by Elk River Road on the north, the Brazeau Reservoir on the east, just past Brazeau River on the south, and Range Road 145.
Bart Guyon, reeve of Brazeau County, has been co-ordinating with the area’s fire chief to ensure county residents have the latest information and are able to evacuate swiftly.
“It’s kind of like waking up in the middle of a nightmare,” Guyon said.
“I’m not on the front line, but we’ve got a lot of professionals that are pouring their hearts into what they do. And we’ve got everybody coming together to try to help.”
“Tactical evacuations are being done. This wildfire primarily affects oil and gas industry, but anyone within the area must evacuate,” the emergency alert said.
Fox Lake evacuation
On Thursday, a large out-of-control wildfire in the Fox Lake area of northern Alberta forced thousands of people from their homes. Alberta Wildfire said the fire covered about 4,400 hectares as of Thursday afternoon.
In a video posted to Facebook, Little Red River Cree Nation Chief Conroy Sewepagaham said about 3,700 residents have evacuated the community.
In another video later Thursday, Sewepagaham said the fire has “grown significantly and continues to move westward.”
He provided a further video update, saying that as far as he could tell, all residents had been evacuated from the community, but “unfortunately we are losing homes left and right and centre.”
According to an update posted by the Little Red River Cree Nation’s Facebook page, 34 Alberta Wildfire firefighters, four helicopters, two heavy helicopters, heavy equipment and air tankers would be battling the wildfire on Friday.
Little Red River Cree Nation is made up of three Woodland Cree communities: Fox Lake, Garden River and John D’Or Prairie. The majority of the population lives in Fox Lake — east of High Level, about 600 kilometres north of Edmonton.
In High Level, town officials said in a news release they are preparing to host about 1,800 evacuees.
“As a primary destination for Albertans across Northwest Alberta, the Town of High Level and its residents are proud to continue to support our neighbours during their time of need,” said Mayor Crystal McAteer.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen these types of emergency situations occur more regularly over the past few years. We recognize how stressful it can be for those that need to leave their homes behind to head to safety.
“We hope to be their safe haven and always work to make evacuees as comfortable as possible.”
Thousands of Albertans are also on evacuation order due to wildfires burning throughout central Alberta.
On Friday, an evacuation order was issued for Saddle Hills County, in the Fourth Creek area, between Township road 840 and the Peace River, between Range Road 75 and Range Road 85. The order states a wildfire is moving toward the Peace River and is threatening structures in the area.
An evacuation order was also issued Friday for everyone in Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation and Sandy Bay. The order affects everyone north of Highway 43 and east Youngs Point Road, including Cozy Cove and Boyd’s Lakeshore Properties.
Residents are being told to head to Valleyview, though the order notes Highway 43 is unavailable through the community.
In Big Lakes County, residents in west Prairie River and Highway 749 and south of Township Road 724 must evacuate Immediately. A fire within East Prairie Metis Settlement is moving northwest and is expected to reach the Banana Belt area overnight.
The Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council issued an evacuation order late Friday afternoon, ordering all community members in the communities of Whitefish River and Atikameg to immediately leave the area.
Residents in the County of Grande Prairie, from Township Road 710 to the Wapiti River and Highway 40 to Range Road 72, are being ordered to evacuate the area immediately due to an out-of-control wildfire in that area. Residents are being told to leave via the nearest Range Road north toward the City of Grande Prairie. Evacuees are to register at the Bonnets Energy Centre, 10017 99 Avenue in Grande Prairie.
A wildfire alert was issued for residents in Leduc County, south of Edmonton, near the village of Warburg.
The evacuation order is in effect for Range Road 41 east to Range Road 35 and from Township Road 494 north to Township Road 495. The affected area is about 6.5 kilometres north and eight kilometres west of Warburg.
An emergency alert was issued for the community of Wildwood, west of Edmonton, on Thursday afternoon, but the evacuation zone was extended Thursday night at 8:30 p.m.
The area affected includes Pembina River west to Range Road 101, with a north border of Township Road 550 and south border to Township Road 520.
Included in the zone are the communities of Evansburg, Wildwood, Lobstick and Hansonville.
The wildfire near Evansburg currently covers 2,254 hectares.
In nearby Entwistle, an evacuation order was issued by Parkland County Thursday night. The order affects the area west of Range Road 65 to the Pembina River, north of Township Road 530 to Highway 16, including all residents of Entwistle.
Residents are being told to evacuate the area immediately and a reception centre is being set up at the Wabamun Jubilee Hall, at 5132 53rd Ave. in Wabamun.
Edmonton Fire Rescue Services is helping Parkland County by sending two fully staffed fire trucks, a district chief and a mechanic to Entwistle “to provide structure protection in the town,” the City of Edmonton said in a news release.
Lac Ste. Anne County issued an evacuation order Thursday for everyone between Range Road 60 and 64, from Township Road 554 to Highway 43. On Friday the order was expanded to include everyone north of Township Road 560 and south of Highway 43, and between Range Road 60 to 53, including Cherhill.
Clearwater County has issued an evacuation notice for everyone west of Beaverdam Provincial Rec Area and east of the Bighorn Dam, this includes the hamlet of Nordegg. Residents in the area need to plan to evacuate with enough items to to b conformable for at least 72 hours.
Residents in Athabasca County on Range Road 214 and 215, north of Township Road 674 to the Athabasca River are also advised to evacuate.
Heart Lake First Nation 167 residents are also advised to evacuate immediately should conditions worsen.
A short notice evacuation order may also affect residents northeast of Swan Hills along Highway 33.