The mayor of High Level said Monday that residents forced from their homes last week by an out-of-control wildfire could be allowed to return home as early as this weekend, but added that timeline is extremely fluid due to changing conditions.
Crystal McAteer said the town is working with provincial and county officials on a re-entry plan that could see evacuees return this weekend. But she stressed that essential services must be restored in the town first, before anyone will be allowed back in their homes.
“First of all, we have to make sure that the essential businesses are in town, the hospital is up and running, the air quality is good,” McAteer said.
Watch below: Hot and dry conditions continue to make fighting the wildfires in northern Alberta a challenge. Fletcher Kent reports.
The mayor also stressed that given the hot, dry conditions that persist in the area, the plan could change.
“I am saying we’re planning for the weekend and that’s the best date I can give the evacuees right now,” she said. “But it could be later.
“We don’t want people to hang their hat there in case things change.”
Watch below: High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said a re-entry plan is currently being put together, but she stressed that no one will return to the Alberta town unless it is safe to do so and essential services are in place.
McAteer stressed that safety remains the No. 1 priority, and officials do not want residents to go back home if there’s a chance the town could be evacuated again.
The mayor made the comments during an update with provincial wildfire officials on Monday afternoon. Scott Elliott with Alberta Wildfire said the fire hasn’t spread toward the town, and the safeguards put in place over the weekend appear to be working.
“We had looked at yesterday as being an important test of the work that we’ve done so far around the community of High Level. We did pretty good,” he said.
“The extreme fire behaviour burning conditions that we were expecting did come and fortunately, we weren’t challenged with extreme burning conditions adjacent to the community.”
However, Elliott added that extreme fire conditions still exist in the area.
“The weather has not co-operated in any way. We’re still experiencing hot, dry, windy conditions. The threat of extreme fire behaviour has not been alleviated.”
Watch below: Scott Elliott with Alberta Wildfire said work to keep a growing wildfire from reaching the town of High Level has been holding. However, he said the weather is not co-operating the conditions remain extremely dry and hot.
High Level wildfire status
The Chuckegg Creek fire is now 127,000 hectares — or 1,270 square kilometres — in size.
More than 400 firefighters, including many who have come from outside Alberta, are on the fire lines and also in High Level working to protect property and infrastructure.
They are supported by at least 28 helicopters, eight air tankers and 46 pieces of heavy equipment, according to the province.
There are also 194 structural firefighters working within the town of High Level to protect homes and other buildings at risk within Mackenzie County.
Nearly 5,000 people from the High Level and surrounding areas were forced from their homes last Monday, April 20.
Another 490 people from Paddle Prairie were also forced from their homes over the weekend, according to the provincial government. Those residents are being asked to register at the Grande Prairie reception centre.
Financial assistance for evacuees
Provincial emergency funds for evacuees’ gas, food and other expenses were made available on Monday.
Wildfire evacuees are eligible to apply for a one-time payment of $1,250 (for adults) and $500 for each dependent child by registering online at MyAlberta Digital ID.
Those unable to register online can register in person at wildfire support or reception centres.
Watch below: High Level residents who fled the Chuckegg Creek wildfire are beginning to receive debit cards from the province. Julia Wong reports.
At the La Crete reception centre on Monday, several evacuees lined up to receive their emergency funds.
“It helps quite a bit, actually. It’s been stressful just getting evacuated and whatnot, but now this relief has come in and it helps everybody out,” said Dale Evans, a High Level resident.
A special air quality statement is in place for much of northern Alberta.
Insurance information for wildfire evacuees
The Alberta government is advising all evacuees to retain all of their receipts for food and accommodation and other related expenses for possible reimbursement from their insurance provider.
“Most home and tenant’s insurance policies provide reasonable coverage for living expenses during an evacuation. Contact your insurance company for details,” the government said in a news release. “Albertans who cannot remember or reach their insurance provider, can contact the Insurance Bureau of Canada at 1-844-227-5422 or by email at email@example.com.
For more information, click here.
Information for pet owners and livestock owners
Any wildfire evacuee who left a household pet behind in High Level is asked to call 780-926-2201.
Animal control officers are collecting pets that have been left behind and they will be moved “to a safe and secure location outside of the town of High Level,” the government said.
Information for wildfire evacuees who need access to legal and other services
The government said Monday that the High Level Court remains closed and anyone who needs to make an inquiry on High Level Court matters scheduled for this week or next should call the Peace River Court at 780-624-6256.
All scheduled Fort Vermilion matters will be heard in Peace River.
“Matters will be held by phone if necessary,” the government said. “If you have an appointment with a probation officer in an evacuated area, report to the community corrections office nearest you. If you do not know where the nearest one is, call 780-427-3109.
Evacuees who receive benefits from the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) or the Income Support program by cheque rather than electronic deposit can visit their nearest Alberta Supports Centres to pick up their cheque. Those who are in La Crete can pick up their cheque at the local reception centre.
If driver’s licences, ID cards or birth certificates were left behind during the evacuation, replacement cards and certificates can be ordered free of charge at a registry agent.
Canada Post has suspended mail delivery in High Level, Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement, Meander River, Chateh and Keg River. The government said mail will be held at the Edmonton depot until service to those communities resumes.
Information for students impacted by the High Level wildfire evacuation
On Monday, the provincial government said Grade 12 students in the High Level area are eligible for an exemption from their diploma exam.
“When a student is exempt from the diploma exam, their classroom mark will be their final mark,” the government said. “· These students could also write the exam if they choose to do so and can safely make it to a school, either in their community or another.
“Students can also defer writing the diploma exams to August.”
The province also said students who are in Grade 6 or Grade 9 can be excused from writing provincial achievement tests.
“Alternately, these students could write the tests if they can safely make it to a school, either in their community or another,” the province said in a news release. “· Once students and their families have made a decision, they should contact their school division.”
Boil water advisories remain in effect
On Monday, the province said even though power has been restored, boil water advisories remain in place for Meander River (Dene Tha’ First Nation), John D’Or Prairie, Fox Lake and North Tall Cree (Little Red River Cree Nation).
“The boil water advisories will remain in place until water testing is complete,” the government said.
Trout Lake wildfire
Another wildfire sprung up over the weekend near a remote community in northwestern Alberta, which has been put on alert to evacuate on short notice.
The wildfire is 14 kilometres southeast of the community of Trout Lake and the nearby Peerless Lake First Nation. The communities are about 500 kilometres north of Edmonton, in a remote area east of Peace River and north of Slave Lake.
Alberta Emergency Alert said the communities should be prepared to evacuate if necessary and to follow the directions of local authorities.
According to Alberta Wildfire, as of Sunday at 6 p.m. the out-of-control fire was 300 hectares in size. Three air tanker groups and five helicopters are working on this wildfire, the province said.
Smoke from wildfires may make driving hazardous and people are advised to remain inside, limit exposure to smoke and seek medical attention if they experience breathing difficulties.
Alberta Environment says the wildfire danger in the Slave Lake region is extreme: conditions remain very dry, allowing a fire to ignite easily and spread very quickly. A fire ban is in effect for almost all of Alberta north of the Edmonton area.
Poor air quality in Fort McMurray area
Drifting wildfire smoke has caused the air quality to plummet in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
The Alberta Wildfire map shows three fires — one near Fort McKay and two near Conklin — burning in the region, and all are classified as under control.
At 11 a.m. MT, the Alberta Environment air quality health index (AQHI) in Fort McMurray was at a very high risk 10+. Nearby Anzac was at a 10, and the Fort McKay area was expected to reach that level later Monday.
Alberta Health measures the air quality health index on a scale of one to 10, with the higher the number, the greater the health risk.
A 10+ is considered “very high risk,” at which point Alberta Health suggests people avoid strenuous activities outdoors, and children and the elderly should also avoid outdoor physical exertion.
According to the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association — which monitors air quality in the area — Fort McMurray’s AQHI was at 17 at 11 a.m.
Watch below: A wildfire near High Level in Alberta, Canada, had burned through over 105,000 hectares by Saturday, May 25, according to local government reports.
— With files from Jennifer Ivanov, Global News, Phil Heidenreich, Global News, and The Canadian Press