Thousands of High Level residents, who were evacuated nearly two weeks ago because of ongoing wildfires in the region, began to return home on Monday.
Residents were greeted at a checkpoint, where they were given a letter from the RCMP detailing how officers looked after the town over the past two weeks, and what to expect when they get home.
WATCH: Residents begin to return home Monday morning.
Leonard and Susan Janzen were some of the first people through the blockade on Monday morning.
“I just wanted to go home,” Susan said, when asked why they wanted to come back so soon.
The pair had been staying in a camper at a friend’s place 18 kilometres east of High Level when they learned the evacuation order would be lifted.
“We didn’t eat. We didn’t sleep,” Susan said. “I was so excited. It was anxiety kicking in so bad.”
The couple was camping two weeks ago in Peace River when they learned the wildfire was threatening their town; they rushed back to High Level in time to grab a few items and throw them in their camper.
“We had so little time, I just threw everything around and grabbed what I needed. I just figured, ‘Well this is going to burn anyway so why be careful?’ I have messed up a lot of stuff in here,” Susan said.
The couple plan to spend Monday cleaning up their house, throwing away rotten food and moving personal effects from their camper back to their house.
“[We’re] very thankful. It went so good but also be thankful for all the people that worked so hard to save our homes. They worked around the clock and all we did was just sit there. I’m so thankful for it,” Susan said.
A re-entry package was handed out to each returning resident. It detailed items that may have been moved in yards (such as propane tanks and barbecues,) and what steps residents may have to take when they get in their house, such as checking their utilities and running taps to clear out old water.
“I’m very happy that people are finally coming home,” High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said.
“Our residents need to know that they are safe. This fire is not currently threatening our community whatsoever. They are safe, the smoke quality may change from day to day and there’s going to be no school. That makes me very sad.”
Another adjustment for High Level residents? McAteer said they’ll have to be on constant alert.
“Normal for us is going to be on high alert, making sure we have a bag packed in case it happens again.”
“High Level and the surrounding area is reopening its doors to welcome you back,” the town said on Sunday.
“At 10 a.m. Monday, the mandatory evacuation order for High Level, the surrounding areas of Mackenzie County and the Dene Tha’ First Nation communities of Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh will be lifted and people will be allowed back into their homes.”
Watch below: Alberta Wildfire information officer Victoria Ostendorf explains what conditions changed enough for residents to be allowed to return home to High Level, and how the weather helped firefighters.
“Today is a good day,” James Ahnassay, Chief of the Dene Tha’ First Nation, said Monday.
“What I learned from this fire is that there’s a number of things that need to be looked at in the region. We have a number of communities all around this area, the escape routes, that kind of stuff, in case of another disaster or fire or even ice rain.
“When you look at the infrastructure, I think it’s time for the government to take a good look at ways they can prevent infrastructure damage and also take a look at access, so that there are good escape routes for people,” Ahnassay said.
Firefighters might have moved propane tanks, patio furniture, firewood, garbage bins and other items away from homes, the town said.
“You can move your items back into your yards, but please keep barbecues and flammable items away from the house or from under trees,” the town said. “You can barbecue as usual.”
Watch below (June 3): Evacuation order lifted in High Level, wildfire continues to burn
Atco announced Monday that customers in the mandatory evacuation zones will not be billed for natural gas while they weren’t home (May 20 to June 2).
Technicians were able to keep service running uninterrupted during the wildfire but asked anyone who smells natural gas at their home or business to call Atco’s emergency hotline at 1-866-222-2068 or 911.
People will be given return packages that include information about disposing of spoiled food and refreshing taps to rid them of stagnant water.
“The hospital, grocery stores, banks and gas stations are ready for you,” the town said.
McAteer said in a video that while the mandatory evacuation order that has been in place for almost two weeks will be lifted, an evacuation alert will remain in place.
She said that means residents should be ready to leave again at short notice if the fire threat returns.
“We did everything on the fly,” the mayor said. “If it weren’t for Alberta Emergency Management and Can-42, this would’ve been a devastating experience.
“We did things more smoothly than Fort McMurray because we got the book from them. Hopefully, we can put our piece in there and help other communities that have to go through this.”
Watch below: Thousands of High Level, Alta., residents returned home Monday but the threat from a nearby out-of-control wildfire remains. Tom Vernon has more.
Schools closed, exams optional
The Fort Vermilion School Division said schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year. The superintendent said the school division’s insurance provider requires the buildings to be professionally cleaned.
The school division said last week Grade 12 students in the High Level area are eligible for an exemption from their diploma exams. The Education Ministry said that when a student is exempt from the diploma exam, their classroom mark alone will be their final mark.
Grade 12 students can also defer writing their diplomas until August, when all of the exams will be offered again. If they do want to write the exams, they can make arrangements to do so.
As of Sunday, June 2, wildfire season in Alberta had forced 10,252 people out of their homes in the northern part of the province over the last few weeks, according to the provincial government.
As of 7 p.m. on Monday, June 3, there were three active wildfires in the High Level Forest Area, two of which were out of control; the Chuckegg Creek fire had grown to about 280,000 hectares and the Jackpot Creek fire around Steen River was at 24,700 hectares.
There were 67 firefighters and nine helicopters working on the Jackpot Creek fire as of Monday morning, according to Wildfire Alberta.
“This fire is going to be on the landscape for some time,” Alberta Wildfire information officer Victoria Ostendorf said. “People just need to be aware of that. We’re going to continue working hard and have this thing under control and we won’t stop until we do.”
Of the wildfires burning across northern Alberta, there are three main ones affecting communities:
- The far northwestern Chuckegg Creek wildfire near High Level
- The Battle Complex wildfire near Manning in the Peace River region
- The McMillan Complex wildfire north of Slave Lake
LISTEN BELOW: Global News reporter Julia Wong joins the Ryan Jespersen show as High Level residents begin to make their way home
– With files from The Canadian Press; Julia Wong and Emily Mertz, Global News