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Residents in northern Alberta are being told to expect to be out of their homes for at least 72 hours after several areas, including High Level, were evacuated Monday due to an out-of-control wildfire.
“Approximately 4,000 people have been evacuated without incident and I’m pleased to say it was a safe, orderly evacuation,” Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday morning.
“No homes have been damaged and there have been no known injuries associated with the fires, but electricity and cellular service have been lost in the area.”
Kenney said the communities of Fort Vermilion and La Crete have also experienced power losses. In an update just before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Atco said provisional energy was restores to High Level, and power in La Crete should be up by midnight.
However, the power company stressed restoration may be intermittent due to the unpredictable nature of the wildfire.
Crews are in the process of securing large-scale back-up generation, which should be available by the end of the week.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Telus said it had restored all cellular service to Mackenzie County after outages caused by the wildfire.
Telus said it has not suffered damage to its core infrastructure, but added some customers may see intermittent wireline service disruption due to power outages in the area.
Telus said crews will work around the clock to keep services online. Telus said it will waive overage charges for affected customers. Updates on Telus service status can be found online.
Watch below: A video provided by High Level resident Danny Green shows the massive extent of the wildfires burning in northern Alberta. This video was taken as the High Level area was evacuated on Monday, May 20, 2019.
Reception centres have been set up in Slave Lake at the Legacy Centre, in High Prairie at the Sports Palace, at the Misery Mountain Ski Hill in Peace River, at the Grande Prairie Regional College and at the La Crete Heritage Centre south of La Crete.
Listen below: Global News reporter Sarah Kraus joins the Ryan Jespersen Show from Slave Lake
Kenney asked all evacuees to register at a reception centre even if they’re not planning to stay at one, so that the province can keep in contact with everyone.
Officials with the Town of Slave Lake said about 700 people had registered at the Slave Lake reception centre as of mid-morning Tuesday.
“Steady flow of evacuees all night there, coming throughout the night,” said Mayor Tyler Warman. “Things went well, went smoothly.
“People are very calm, very patient.”
He said they’ve booked a bunch of hotel rooms for anyone who needed one.
“We were down to the wire, but we were able to house them all,” said Warman. “We do have cots potentially available here in the future if needed, if we needed to set something up on a wider scale.”
Warman, who was a town councillor and firefighter during a 2011 wildfire that destroyed parts of Slave Lake, said he’s happy that the community is able to help its neighbours.
“We’re excited to pay it forward a little bit,” he said.
Watch below: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the evacuation of High Level and nearby communities was a successful one Monday evening. He also says the level of the wildfire is a 6 – the highest level.
The Chuckegg Creek wildfire south of High Level, Alta. is located west of Highway 35 and south of Highway 58. As of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, the provincial government said it had grown to nearly 80,000 hectares in size.
“The right call was made by Mayor (Crystal) McAteer to get residents out early based on the unpredictability of the winds,” Kenney said. “The fire has approached as close as five kilometres to the southwest of High Level.”
“On the fire intensity scale of one to six, the High Level fire is currently assessed to be a six, meaning that the fire is jumping from crown to crown of trees,” the premier said.
McAteer indicated she was pleased with how High Level residents reacted to the evacuation order.
“I am very happy and very proud of our citizens for their cooperation,” she said. “We have been putting out releases daily, saying, ‘Be ready for 72 hours, pack something.’ So they were kind of aware.”
McAteer said there were only three people that she’s aware of who disobeyed the evacuation order and that they would be forcibly removed from the community if the situation worsens. She said there are still some unaccounted-for seniors from the White Spruce Village assisted-living facility in High Level, however, she also noted crews have checked each room and nobody is still at the facility.
Fire officials said this fire is their top priority right now.
Crews are working on fire barriers along highways and the perimeter of the town. There are water bombers, helicopters, air tankers, 10 sprinkler systems and 89 firefighters from Alberta Wildfire.
Crews from Ontario, Nova Scotia and B.C. are expected to arrive to help support the fire fight over the next 48 hours.
Watch below: Bruce Mayer, with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, explains how crews attack a blaze when it’s listed as a high danger Level 5 or 6.
Bruce Mayer, assistant deputy minister with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said a Level 6 is the worst it can get.
“Levels 5 and 6, from a rank perspective, it indicates how active the fire is.
“Essentially, it becomes something you can’t put man power on, directly on the edges,” Mayer said.
“We have to use indirect attacks — so air tankers along the flanks… We will not put any people in front of the head. It’s just too dangerous.”
BELOW: An interactive map of the wildfires currently burning in Alberta
The current number of active wildfires in Alberta is consistent with or slightly above the five-year average, Kenney said.
While conditions in northern Alberta are expected to remain dry and windy, the forecast is different than it was during the Fort McMurray wildfire.
“Fort McMurray had west winds that actually blew the fire into the community itself,” Mayer said. “Currently, we have southeast winds — have had for the last week or so — so the fire is actually burning on the southwest side of High Level, headed northwest.”
LISTEN: High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer joins The Morning News to discuss evacuations in her town
That wind forecast is more “favourable” for the townsite, Mayer explained.
LISTEN BELOW: Is wildfire season evolving into something even more serious?
As of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Highway 35 remained closed between five kilometres and 30 kilometres south of High Level; the Highway 697 La Crete Ferry was being used as a detour. The province said the ferry is operational with wait times of about one hour. Highway 58 from High Level to approximately 90 kilometres from where it connects with Range Road 45A remained closed.
Norbord Inc. temporarily suspended production at a plant in High Level to comply with evacuation orders. All non-essential mill employees have left and the mill was secure at the time of evacuation.
High Level is approximately 400 kilometres west of Fort McMurray, Alta.
Mayer said the province had learned lessons from the Wood Buffalo blaze and is applying them here.
Watch below: Bruce Mayer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry talks about how teams are implementing lessons learned from the Fort McMurray wildfire, including how firefighting and any evacuations take place.
“There were a couple of key ones. One was on our weather forecasting for long-term trends, relationship and in turn, we have clear roles and responsibilities with municipal partners and industrial partners.
“I think the biggest lessons learned that we’re employing right now … is unified command. With that, my senior staff are in lock-step with municipal senior staff and they will make one plan… that plan will include how the firefighting will take place, how the structural protection will take place and how any evacuation work will take place.”
The premier said, if conditions allow, he plans to visit High Level Tuesday.
Kenney urged residents to be cautious as the fire danger in many parts of the province is considered extreme.
“Unfortunately, the dry conditions in northern Alberta are expected to continue for the foreseeable future with the fire danger possibly increasing this week.”
WATCH: Alberta premier warns wildfires will worsen.
McAteer expressed her appreciation for the support being shown to High Level evacuees by other Albertans.
“Albertans are just so giving — even when they are down and out in some cases, like our area,” she said. “They are volunteering and giving. We were given the keys to a hotel last night and they said, ‘Here, just book people in.’ We were given the keys to the grocery store and told, ‘Use whatever you can.’ It’s just such a giving community.”
Watch below: Fire officials say they’ve learned lessons from the Fort McMurray wildfire and applied them to the High Level wildfire, including the fire fight plan, evacuation and coordination. Tom Vernon explains.
Reception centre locations
Slave Lake Legacy Centre
400 6 Ave. NE
Slave Lake, AB
High Prairie Sports Palace
5409 – 49 St.
High Prairie, AB
Grande Prairie Regional College
10726 106 Ave.
Grande Prairie, AB
Peace River Misery Mountain Ski Hill
10408 89 St.
Peace River, AB
La Crete Heritage Centre
25411 TWP RD 1060
South of La Crete, AB
— With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich and The Canadian Press