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High Level wildfire crews fight fire with fire to protect Alberta town

Out-of-control wildfire near High Level grows to 97,000 hectares
WATCH ABOVE: Fire crews have been able to establish a protective perimeter around the Town of High Level Thursday but the fire continues to grow and remains unpredictable and conditions "extreme."

The fire-threatened town of High Level in northwestern Alberta says a successful controlled burn was carried out to help keep a raging nearby wildfire at bay.

A statement on High Level’s website said the burn — to eliminate fuel the blaze could feed on — was done Wednesday afternoon south and west of the community as part of efforts to contain the out-of-control fire.

“Firefighters’ efforts continue to be effective due to lighter winds out of the northeast,” High Level fire Chief Rodney Schmidt said Thursday afternoon. “These favourable conditions helped crews protect electrical poles west and south of the town.

“The High Level fire department, along with municipal firefighters, have completed structural protection across the entire perimeter of High Level as of yesterday.”

On Thursday afternoon, firefighters were set to continue a controlled-burn operation to create containment along Highway 35 south of High Level and west along Highway 58, if conditions allow.

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READ MORE: Alberta wildfire evacuee says she’s more concerned about firefighters than what she left behind

The Chuckegg Creek fire, about three kilometres southwest of the town, now covers some 976 square kilometres (97,600 hectares).

“Due to the current winds out of the northeast and work from the resources that we’ve got, the fire hasn’t spread towards the community in any significant way,” Scott Elliot, commander with the unified command team, said Thursday.

WATCH: Crews are deploying a strategy of fighting fire with fire. Fletcher Kent reports. 

Controlled burns planned to keep High Level fire at bay
Controlled burns planned to keep High Level fire at bay

There are 143 Alberta Wildfire firefighters, 154 structural (municipal) firefighters, air tankers, 28 helicopters and over 60 trucks and other pieces of equipment working on the blaze. One hundred firefighters from B.C. were also on route to High Level Thursday.

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“Currently, we have northeast winds in town, which is keeping the primary area of spread of this fire away from the community, but because of the variability of weather factors, that can change very quickly,” Elliot stressed.

The fire continues to keep approximately 5,000 residents of High Level and the surrounding region out of their homes following an evacuation order issued over the long weekend.

“Unfortunately, I have to say the danger from the wildfire is not over,” High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said.

“I understand that residents are missing their homes, and I cannot stress enough the danger is just outside High Level, and it’s very real.

“I do though, have full confidence in Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s judgment. They have a criteria that must be met before it is safe for you to return. Right now, this criteria has not been met. It will be some time before evacuees can return to their homes and communities.”

Watch below: High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said on Thursday the danger from the wildfire burning in the area is still not over, adding it will be “some time before evacuees can return to their homes and communities.

‘Sometime’ before High Level residents can return home: mayor
‘Sometime’ before High Level residents can return home: mayor

McAteer says she called Premier Jason Kenney’s office asking his government to sign off on preloaded debit cards for those who fled the town during the long weekend.

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She says the town isn’t as affluent as other communities and vulnerable people are out of their homes without funds.

McAteer says she thinks the cards — for gas, food and other expenses — should have been available at reception centres by now.

It took just over a week for such cards to be available after a wildfire forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray in 2016.

Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Sarah Kraus, Global News
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Sarah Kraus, Global News
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Sarah Kraus, Global News
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.
Officials update the High Level wildfire situation on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Sarah Kraus, Global News

“With current conditions, firefighters continue to be effective, due to lighter winds out of the northeast,” the province said in Thursday’s update. “This … continues to aid crews on protecting power line poles west and south of the town of High Level.”

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LISTEN BELOW: High Level wildfire updates

However, thunderstorms are forecast for Thursday and Friday and still no precipitation.

READ MORE: Alberta fire season 2019: Latest status of wildfires, bans and restrictions

Provincial fire authorities said rising temperatures, a gusting wind and no significant rain have pushed the wildfire danger around High Level into the extreme range.

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Schmidt said he can’t stress enough how well all the teams are working together. He also said a friend, who happens to be the Slave Lake fire chief, was one of his first calls when the High Level wildfire took a turn.

“Jamie Coutts was one of the first guys I called.

“Jamie and I are longtime friends. We helped him in Slave Lake in 2011, and when we felt this incident started to grow, I called him up and he’s by my side most of the day here working as a technical specialist with me,” Schmidt said.

“We’re working together, helping myself and my deputy chief make joint decisions. He’s been a great asset.”

Watch below: Chief Rodney Schmidt said Thursday one of the first phone calls he made was to Slave Lake Fire Chief Jamie Coutts, who lead efforts to stamp out the devastating wildfire that ravaged Slave Lake in 2011.
Slave Lake fire chief helping battle wildfire in High Level
Slave Lake fire chief helping battle wildfire in High Level

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

Heavy equipment has been working along the northeast side of the fire and continued to make progress on consolidating a guard around the fire perimeter. Crews had built approximately eight kilometres of containment line by Thursday afternoon.

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They were also taking preventive 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, but officials warn it may be intermittent.

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

Yukon Wildland Fire Management says smoke from the wildfire burning about 1,000 kilometres away in Alberta arrived in the Whitehorse area early Wednesday. A map tracking the plume shows coverage extending more than 500 kilometres north.

Fire officials say the smoke is not from any of three active wildfires in Yukon but from the roughly 976-square kilometre blaze threatening the northern Alberta community of High Level.

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Smoke from the High Level wildfire has prompted Environment Canada to issue air quality advisories for the entire northwestern corner of Alberta, the Fort Nelson region of northeastern British Columbia and the Watson Lake area of southeastern Yukon.

“The smoke the fire is generating is quite significant,” Elliot said.

“We understand it has a large impact to faraway communities. The smoke impacts will continue to be variable depending on the wind direction so communities that have been smoke-free in the past, with a shift in the winds, they may experience smoky conditions from this fire.”