Northern Alberta wildfires prompt Kenney government to declare disaster, public emergency

WATCH ABOVE: Some recent videos from Global News' coverage of the wildfires burning in northern Alberta.

As wildfires continue to rage in northern Alberta, and prompting more evacuation orders on Wednesday, the provincial government has officially declared the situation both a public emergency and a disaster.

The public emergency order was declared by Alberta’s agriculture and forestry minister while the disaster order was declared by the municipal affairs minister.

READ MORE: Wildfire leads to mandatory evacuation order near Mackenzie County campground

The orders, declared under Section 7 of the Fiscal Planning and Transparency Act, were prompted by what the government called the “extraordinary losses, damages and costs, including prevention, presuppression, suppression, reclamation and reforestation costs, resulting from wildfires” this year. The government also cited the emergency response costs.

Section 7 of the Fiscal Planning and Transparency Act, under which Wednesday’s orders were declared, deals with deviations from the provincial budget.

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As of Tuesday night, the Chuckegg Creek wildfire has 588 firefighters battling it. They are being supported by helicopters, air tankers and heavy equipment. The provincial government is also making financial supports available for wildfire evacuees.

“It’s a bit of a budgetary process where right now, [for] Alberta wildfires, there’s a base funding of $129.9 million and with this next step… we’re allowed to have more funds,” Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen told Global News. “And so in the order of council that just got approved was an additional $250 million to fight the ongoing forest fires.

“That’s because the burn rate that’s happened so far this year is above the five-year average,” he added.

“Although the actual wildfires are less in number, the actual acres that have been affected are higher, and so we thought it was prudent to make sure that we had the adequate funds available… to make sure that we can protect our forested areas.”

According to Alberta Wildfire, there were 25 active wildfires across the province as of 10 a.m. on Wednesday. Of those, six had been sparked in the last 24 hours and seven were considered to be out of control.

Hot, dry conditions and gusty winds have led to what fire watchers call a red-flag warning across northern Alberta’s forest.

“We saw some pretty significant fire growth on a number of our wildfires yesterday,” Derek Gagnon, a provincial information officer, said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

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Watch below: Some videos from Global News’ coverage of wildfires burning in northern Alberta.

The largest wildfire burning in Alberta on Wednesday was still the Chuckegg Creek wildfire, which forced some 5,000 people in the High Level area to flee their homes earlier this month. That blaze has grown to 1,500 square kilometres — an increase of 200 square kilometres from Tuesday.

Gagnon said a new fire around Steen River, which is also in the High Level forest area, grew 170 square kilometres in its first day.

“We were forced to evacuate one of our fire bases… but it’s not threatening any communities,” he said. “There are occasional residences and cabins along Highway 35 that would have been forced to leave the area, but no large groupings of houses.”

Several highways around High Level are now closed due to the fires.

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The red-flag warning, which comes from a fire weather meteorologist, warns firefighters that there’s potential for fires to blow up in some areas.

“It’s a bit of an alert for our operations staff,” said Gagnon. “It’s something to pass along to them that says, ‘Hey, this is something to look out for because the fire danger conditions are going to be extreme. If you are going to be putting firefighters on the ground, keep in mind that these fires can grow very quickly and spread very quickly and it can put them into danger.”’

READ MORE: Alberta wildfire continues to grow, but is spreading away from High Level

Dreeshen encouraged all Albertans to keep up with social media updates coming from both his ministry and from municipal affairs because “it is a very difficult situation up in northern Alberta.”

“They haven’t had rain in a long time… [and] rain is not forecasted in the near future,” he said. “So it is very dry, hot, windy conditions that are happening up north. The evacuations today were due to smoke… unfortunately it will get worse before it gets better regarding smoke.

“But when it comes to the fire in High Level, we’ve done a tremendous job protecting the town and we are winning that battle.

Watch below: Global Edmonton meteorologist Jesse Beyer’s weather forecast for Edmonton and areas in Alberta affected by wildfires from 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton Weather Forecast: May 29'
Edmonton Weather Forecast: May 29

“It’s still an active fire, but the town itself is secure,” Dreeshen said. “I’m proud of the men and women that have done a great job securing the town of High Level, and also the municipal levels of government that have been working very closely with our unified command up there.”

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— with files from The Canadian Press

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