May 22, 2019 12:17 pm
Updated: May 23, 2019 1:26 am

High Level wildfire ‘danger has not passed nor diminished,’ evacuations remain in place

WATCH ABOVE: The Chuckegg Creek wildfire that's threatening High Level, Alta., continued to grow on Wednesday. But as Sarah Kraus reports, controlled burns helped to keep the blaze at bay.

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While winds have been blowing away from the town of High Level, the fire risk remains extreme, conditions are still unpredictable and wildfire evacuees were told Wednesday to plan to stay away from the area for longer than first anticipated.

“The danger has not passed nor has it diminished,” High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said. “Wildfires are highly unpredictable and can change at any moment.”

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“The evacuation of High Level will continue into the foreseeable future,” she said. “It would be irresponsible of town council to do otherwise.”

Scott Elliot, who’s part of Alberta Wildfire’s unified command team, said the High Level area has been experiencing drought-like conditions for some time.

“The weather we’ve been experiencing hasn’t really given us a break,” he said, explaining a big rain would be the most helpful in the firefight. “Extreme burning conditions are expected to persist.”

Watch below: Sarah Kraus joined Global News Morning Edmonton on Wednesday live from an evacuation centre in La Crete in the northwestern Alberta, where the High Level wildfire has grown to nearly 80,000 hectares.

A positive, Elliot said, is that the winds have been blowing away from the community, giving crews the chance to put in place “virtually every strategy and tactic available to us to mitigate this threat.”

However, the winds could change at any time.

“The risk to the town from this fire hasn’t been reduced,” Elliot said. “The threat has not been diminished at all.

“That’s an extremely large fire within three kilometres of a community… Until we can get some real containment action along the entire eastern perimeter of the fire, the risk to the town of High Level remains just based on the wind direction.”

Watch below: Scott Elliot, who’s part of Alberta Wildfire’s unified command, High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer, and Mackenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen.

Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt said there has been no structural damage anywhere.

READ MORE: Hundreds of northern Alberta wildfire evacuees register at reception centres

The provincial government said the lighter wind out of the northeast was allowing firefighters to make progress in reining in the wildfire.

The Chuckegg Creek fire remained out of control Wednesday and had grown to about 92,000 hectares in size. There’s still heavy smoke as it churns about three kilometres south of High Level, but favourable weather on Tuesday allowed crews to protect power poles west and south of the community.

Watch below: For the first time since communities in northern Alberta were evacuated due to an out-of-control wildfire, journalists were allowed to look at High Level. Sarah Kraus was there.

“We are expecting lower temperatures and lighter winds, which should allow us better access to the areas of the fire on the east to create some of that fireguard, to create a bit of a barrier between the fire and the town,” Travis Fairweather, a wildfire information officer with the government, said in an interview Wednesday.

He said the winds are expected to remain favourable for the next couple of days.

“Unfortunately there is no rain in the forecast and that is something we will need for the long run in order to get this fire under control eventually,” said Fairweather.

Officials said crews using heavy equipment were making progress on a fireguard around High Level and parts of the fire perimeter. They were also taking preventative measures on homes, including the removal of debris from yards and patio furniture from decks.

ATCO was able to restore temporary power to Mackenzie County, High Level, La Crete, Fort Vermilion and Dene Tha’ First Nation.

WATCH BELOW: Video taken on Monday, May 20, 2019 shows the massive extent of the wildfires burning in near High Level, Alta.

On Wednesday morning, firefighters were conducting “some hazard-reduction burning” around the community of High Level “in anticipation of a larger operation” in the afternoon.

“Smoke will be seen close to town,” a post on the town’s website said. “A hazard-reduction burn helps protect the community by removing combustible debris and dry grass.”

LISTEN: Travis Fairweather, Alberta Wildfire information officer, on 630 CHED Wednesday morning

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Nearly 5,000 people were cleared out of High Level and nearby First Nations on the long weekend when flames were licking at the southern edge of the town, about 750 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Reception centres have been set up at the Slave Lake Legacy Centre (as of Wednesday, Slave Lake accommodations were at capacity – additional evacuees should head to High Prairie), High Prairie Sports Palace, Grande Prairie Regional College, Peace River Misery Mountain Ski Hill, La Crete Heritage Centre, Fort Vermilion Community Cultural Complex and Hay River Dene Wellness Centre.

The residents were told to expect to be out of their homes for at least 72 hours. McAteer said Wednesday residents should expect to be out of their homes longer.

The community is working on ways to get people medication if they need prescriptions. The mayor said anyone who left a pet at their property should call (780) 926-2201.

IN PHOTOS: Premier Kenney takes aerial tour of High Level wildfire

The fire has been rated at a Level 6 — the most intense rating on the scale — which means flames are jumping from treetop to treetop in the tinder dry region.

As of Wednesday morning, municipal firefighters had finished structure protection on the southwest side of High Level and were working on the northwest side of town. Structural protection was also completed on Mackenzie County homes southeast of High Level, Tolko and Norbord.

There were 110 structural firefighters working on protecting homes in High Level and other buildings in Mackenzie County. There are also 76 Alberta Wildfire firefighters and 24 helicopters working on the blaze.

“We have plenty of firefighters on the fire as well as available throughout the province to help out,” said Fairweather. “But we are looking into bringing in some firefighters from out of province just to help with it.

“Once these firefighters have been on for a number of days, obviously they are going to need some rest.”

He said some firefighters from British Columbia were expected later on Wednesday. The B.C. Wildfire Service said in a news release Tuesday that it was sending 267 personnel to Alberta to help with firefighting efforts throughout the province.

Fairweather said others are to arrive from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia later in the week.

Fairweather said there were 32 active wildfires in Alberta. Four of those fires — including the Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level — were classified as out of control. Two were burning near Slave Lake and one was in the Peace River area.

A fire ban and off-highway vehicle restrictions remain in effect for much of northern Alberta, he said.

The province expanded the fire ban and off-highway vehicle restrictions on Wednesday afternoon to include the forest areas of Lac La Biche, Slave Lake, Whitecourt, Edson, Grande Prairie, and north to the Northwest Territories border. There is also a recreational ban on off-highway vehicles on public land.

Watch below: Some of the thousands of people forced out of their homes in northern Alberta by a wildfire are gathering in Slave Lake, waiting for updates. Fletcher Kent is there.

Violating the fire ban can result in a $287 fine or people can be held liable for all costs associated with fighting a wildfire.

BELOW: An interactive map of the wildfires currently burning in Alberta

— With files from the Canadian Press

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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