May 26, 2019 2:41 pm
Updated: May 31, 2019 3:03 pm

‘We’re going to see the fire pick up and get more intense’: Fire officials provide update in High Level

Scott Elliott with Alberta Wildfire updates the wildfire situation in High Level Sunday, May 26, 2019.

Cam Cook, Global News

Sunday will prove to be the test for fire preparations put in place in and around the town of High Level, Alta., over the past week.

“If we get through today without the fire approaching the community, that will sort of test the operations that we’ve put in place over the last week and it will solidify much of the work that we’ve accomplished,” Alberta Wildfire commander Scott Elliot said during a media briefing Sunday.

“We can focus on other areas of the fire that may still pose a threat.”

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READ MORE: Emergency financial assistance coming to High Level wildfire evacuees

Fire officials provided a second update Sunday afternoon in which they said the fire was closer to the townsite but, was burning as they expected.

“We’re going to see the fire pick up and get more intense and a lot more activity on the fire line,” wildfire information officer Terry Jessiman said.

“It’s right up near the community, it’s right up against the boundary. But with the burn plan that we had successfully completed yesterday, it’s looking really good.”

Jessiman said fire officials intentionally brought the flames closer to the community Saturday as part of their controlled burn plan.

“It was done safely,” Jessiman said. “At this time, we’re confident with the equipment that we have, we’re checking on the fire throughout the day and throughout the coming days with the weather that we’re expecting.”

The main concern Sunday has been an anticipated change in wind direction. Winds initially came from the south and then shifted to the west later in the day. The wind is expected to change yet again Monday, blowing from the north or northeast.

High temperatures and a lack of any rain in the forecast are also likely to increase the fire threat.

WATCH: Officials say still potential risk to town as battle against High Level wildfire continues

Firefighters have been preparing for the change all week.

“The wind’s been consistent. We’ve forecast the wind to blow from the west and so we’re well prepared for that,” Jessiman said.

“We’ve strategically placed resources in anticipation of that so we’re very confident that we have the resources in the right place and working the fire properly.”

“The controlled ignition operation that we achieved the other day did greatly reduce the possibility of the fire approaching the community from the southwest,” Elliot said.

“There is still a lot of uncontrolled fire west of the community, north of Highway 58, and there’s fuel that would allow the fire to approach the community. It’s unlikely that it would make it this far in one burning period, but the possibility is there.”

READ MORE: High Level wildfire crews fight fire with fire to protect Alberta town

“We have extreme fire burning conditions- the weather has gotten hotter and dryer over the past week, fuel conditions are extremely dry,” Elliot added.

“Our fire weather meteorologists and fire behaviour specialists have issued a red flag warning, which means the potential for extreme fire behaviour, which means high rates of spread, spotting distances, large flame lengths, high-intensity fire — so the fire behaviour risk and potential is very high today.”

Firefighters were briefed on the changes Sunday morning.

“Firefighter safety is one of the number 1 things that we’re looking out for, in conjunction with safety of property, so we’ve just completed a series of briefings and strategic fire sessions with all of our firefighters. They’re well briefed on safety and communication procedures and have established trigger points for engagement as well as disengagement,” Elliot said.

Another major concern with the wind shifting will be increased smoke in the area and its impact on air quality.

Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement for the region Sunday.

The statement covers a large portion of northwestern Alberta, including High Level, and warns that smoke from nearby wildfires could affect individuals with certain lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. Residents sensitive to the smoke are being advised to stay indoors.

“The smoke will certainly be coming back to the community of High Level,” Elliot said. “We’ve been fortunate here that the smoke has been blowing to the south and southeast for the most part of the last several days. Many other communities have been impacted by this smoke, and now that the wind has shifted around, it will start blowing back into town.”

High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said the conditions in town Sunday morning were very smoky.

“Today is the test day to see if everything the tactical crews had prepared will hold,” she said.

However, the mayor said she is optimistic.

READ MORE: High Level wildfire: Crews bracing for expected wind shift

“We are as prepared as we can be. We have nine tactical crews around High Level with the structural equipment. Agriculture and Forestry has put up dozer guards. They did the controlled burns. They have crews around the entire perimeter of the dozer guards. I’m very optimistic,” she said.

The biggest question that remains is when evacuees will be allowed back home. McAteer said essential services must be back up and running before residents can return.

But she assures residents that they have nothing to worry about.

“We’re going to be safe, and you’re going to come home soon,” McAteer said.

Elliot echoed the mayor’s words.

“People will be able to come home when it’s safe to come home,” he said. “I think my message would be: we’ve done many of the things that we need to do to make sure the community is going to be safe from wildfire. The biggest thing, for us, is that conditions have continued to get worse so until we get rain, the fire behaviour situation continues to be in the extreme.”

Officials have said the approximately 5,000 people who have been evacuated from the area should not expect to return before sometime later this week and that provincial emergency funds for their gas, food and other expenses should be available by Monday.

“We’re engaged, and people are in a high state of readiness,” Elliot said. “There’s concern, but I think there’s also confidence in the preparations that we’ve put in place and the plan that we have in place.”

WATCH: More coverage of the wildfires near High Level

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