About 7,000 people who were forced to flee their homes in Drayton Valley, Alta., Thursday faced long waits in their vehicles overnight and on Friday — uncertainty.
“The roads were packed,” said Patricia Cotteau. “I took the back way … through Rocky Rapids … 624 to Tomahawk. It was still about an hour and a half.
“We slept in our vehicles. My husband slept in his, so did my parents, my in-laws. We don’t know where we’re going from here.”
Cotteau said she’s worried about finding a place to stay.
“We have animals with us. We have to think of them. We already heard hotels were booked from Stony Plain to Spruce before the evacuation centre was set up.”
The evacuation order for Drayton Valley and Brazeau County was issued Thursday afternoon because of an out-of-control wildfire burning southeast of Drayton Valley. The evacuation zone includes the entire Town of Drayton Valley. It covers the area of Township Road 484 north to Township Road 494, and North Saskatchewan River west to Range Road 80.
It was expanded at 2 p.m. Friday to include the area from the North Saskatchewan River west to Range Road 82.
At 6:30 p.m. Friday, the evacuation area expanded to areas including from Township 482 to 494, from the North Saskatchewan River west to Range Road 90.
People are being told to leave via Highway 22 north to Highway 624, then follow 624 to Tomahawk, then 624 east towards Stony Plain.
There is also an evacuation notice for those on Township Road 482 north to Township Road 494 and Range Road 82 west to Range Road 84. People in that area must be ready to leave with 30-minutes’ notice.
In an update at 2:30 p.m. Friday, the fire chief of Drayton Valley and Brazeau County said the wildfire had crossed Highway 22 and was “on the outskirts of the town.”
“There hasn’t been any structural damage to any properties within the town of Drayton Valley,” Tom Thomson said.
He didn’t have details about potential fire damage in outlying areas.
“The fire is still very active,” he said, adding that crews are focusing on getting a perimeter around the fire but can move to structural fire attack if needed.
“We are in a severe fire hazard zone,” Thomson said of the conditions across Alberta. “Other communities as well as our own are dealing with fire issues. The wind is not helping.
“The fire is moving in a northwest direction. The wind is assisting,” he said.
A power outage was also being reported by Fortis. The company said the fire caused about 2,475 customers to lose power. It was expected to be restored by 5:30 p.m.
Alberta Wildfire officials said Friday the wildfire was 1,500 hectares in size and still out of control. While it is outside the Forest Protection Area, the province is helping Brazeau County, providing 26 firefighters, three helicopters and air tankers.
“We have the ability to provide more support if they need it,” Christie Tucker, information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire, said Friday morning.
She said the Drayton fire had grown 20 hectares on Friday and was about seven kilometres from the town.
“As far as I know, no structures have been lost in that area,” said Stephen Lacroix, the managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
Tucker said Alberta is grappling with a huge fire load.
“We have fires on the central portion, we have fires in the north, it’s just an indication of the conditions that we’re seeing.
“Temperatures have been 10 to 15 degrees above normal for a while now. We still don’t have green grass and leaves all over the province which means the ground is very dry, vegetation is ready to go.”
She said 79 wildfire firefighters are arriving from Ontario and Quebec Friday and Alberta has requested more assistance if needed.
“We will assign all resources where they’re needed most.
“Here in Alberta, we tend to get wildfires earlier on in the year than they do in other places across Canada, so we’re able to share resources with trained professional firefighters that we know will operate at the standard we expect here in Alberta,” Tucker said.
Officials also announced a fire ban and off-highway vehicle restriction across the Forest Protection Area, effective immediately, meaning people cannot have open wood fires on public or private land or in their backyards.
Evacuees are being told to go to Edmonton and register at the EXPO Centre at 7515 118 Avenue in Hall C. If you need help evacuating, call 780-542-7777.
There were about 142 people inside the centre Friday morning, according to the City of Edmonton. The centre is providing temporary lodging, food services, clothing, animal care and health care. It has 75 kits with a cot, clothing, toiletries and bedding ready and has capacity to provide 2,500 more. Buses have been deployed to pick people up.
Albertans are asked to not bring donations of any kind to the EXPO centre.
Greg Kruse, who lives just north of Drayton Valley, has opened his property to evacuees looking for a place to stay.
“We’ve been kind of proactive here and brought in some trailers that are available for temporary housing for people,” said Kruse.
“They have water, they have sewer, they have fridges.”
For Brazeau County resident Cheryl Hagen, the smoke, fire and evacuation brought back memories.
“I was in the one in the Slave Lake area as well in 2011. Not a very good experience.”
“Get the ‘H’ out now. Don’t wait.”
Hagen said her family in the town of Drayton Valley got out Thursday night. She lives a little further away from the fire and was gathering some possessions to take away Friday morning. They stopped at a gas station to fill up.
Their goal now is “to stay away,” Hagen said.
“Hopefully it ends and we get rain soon.”
Nancy Dodds, the mayor of Drayton Valley, encouraged residents to listen to the Alberta Emergency Alerts and check the Drayton Valley and Brazeau County Facebook pages for updates.
She left the community with everyone else Thursday night.
“It was dark when we were leaving, it was smoky, just a lot of taillights leaving the community,” Dodds said.
“The evacuation, I think, went well. People were very mindful of one another, and I think they were patient. Traffic was moving slow and people were trying to get their families and pets to safety. My number one concern is that everybody gets out and that everyone is safe.”
Dodds didn’t know if anyone decided to ignore the evacuation order and stay in Drayton Valley. She also wasn’t sure if any structures had been lost.
Firefighting resources, she said, were from “Brazeau County, we have supports coming in from other municipalities and provincial supports as well.”
Edmonton Fire Rescue Services has also provided support to Parkland County by sending two fully staffed fire trucks, one district chief and one service technician (mechanic). This team was sent to Entwistle to provide structure protection in the town.
“Edmonton is proud to support our regional neighbours in dealing with these wildfires,” said City Manager Andre Corbould. “We will continue to support this co-ordinated response.”
Alberta Health Services said most patients at Drayton Valley Hospital and Care Centre, as well as residents from continuing care sites, had been moved out by Friday morning. The rest of the evacuation will be done Friday afternoon, an AHS spokesperson said.
“All moves are being coordinated with AHS EMS and municipal colleagues and include movement by ground and air ambulance, non-ambulance transport vehicles and municipal vehicles like buses,” James Wood said.
Acute and continuing care patients were moved to locations in central and Edmonton zones. Many families helped with the evacuation and, where possible, staff are staying with patients to ensure continuity of care.
“Appointments with laboratory services, diagnostic imaging, mental health and public health are postponed” due to the wildfire and evacuation.
The evacuation took hours as multiple highways and roads had been shut down.
“We strongly urge everyone to evacuate from the community,” town officials stressed.
Road blocks are set up around the town to make sure people don’t enter the evacuation zone.
Additional resources and support are being brought into the area to help battle the fire, the town said. Both air and ground crews will be used to bring the fire under control.
Cotteau said she and her family decided to leave when they heard the fire had jumped the river.
“We kind of all just flew and that was it.”
She, her husband, their four-year-old daughter, 18-month-old son and the grandparents all took off, Cotteau said.
“We’ve had a wildfire close before, a couple years ago, at Lodgepole, but never this close and I’ve lived in Drayton all my 33 years. Never this close before. This was really surreal.”
Cameron Roberts was also stuck in the convoy of vehicles trying to get out of Drayton overnight.
“Traffic’s crazy. We’re just waiting for my parents to come along. We’re going to meet up with them and see what’s going to happen. The lineup to leave Drayton Valley is ridiculous so I don’t think they’re on their way yet.”
Brooklynn Borle left work when the emergency alert sounded.
“We pretty much started when we heard the fire jumped the river,” she said.
“We were already kind of iffy so we packed our clothes, figured out what we were going to do with our cats and just kind of waited. And then when we got the alert just to prepare, (we) put everything in the car and got that done so we don’t have to deal with that. I was talking to my mom when we got the final alert to leave.”
Fay Barnett said she left her Drayton Valley home at around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, after watching the plumes of smoke get darker by the hour.
The vehicle congestion was awful, she said, but everyone remained calm.
“It was back-to-back traffic. We all just followed each other, nobody passed, it was just straight through until we got to Stony (Plain).”
Barnett said it was frightening but she was able to focus.
“I told myself: ‘We’ll get there when we get there.’ I wasn’t sure where we were going… they told us to head to Edmonton.
“I have too many animals and I’m not (one to) intrude. If there’s a place for us to stay here, we’ll stay here. We’ll all be together and we know everybody.”
She’s been checking on her home by using her security camera app.
“I just checked my home camera and my home was still standing,” Barnett said. “We still had a house as of this morning.”
Diane Desjarlais saw the smoke in the air Thursday and packed a bag just in case.
“The smoke — we could see how red the sky was getting. It was coming in from two directions,” she said.
“It was just like panic. We grabbed our stuff, the neighbours, everyone doing the same, just grabbing everything and everyone is trying to get out at once.
“It was really surreal,” Desjarlais said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
They were moving 15 km/h all the way to Spruce Grove.
They also slept in their vehicles on the side of the road.
“It’s something you never hope to go through and when you do, it’s just crazy,” she said.
Awaiting word on extent of wildfire damage
As of Saturday, residents of Drayton Valley find themselves eagerly awaiting word on the status of the community they’ve left behind and a timeline for when, or if, they’ll be able to return.
“Hoping everything’s good. People are all fine and hoping we can go back there without any damage,” said Paul Walwal, a displaced resident of Drayton Valley. “And we’ll go back to our daily lives.”
Jen Freake, who had to uproot her family from their Drayton Valley home, awaits a return to normal life.
“It feels like we’re just kind of in limbo,” Freake told Global News. “We don’t know (if) we’re going home. How long are we away?
“Everything’s so uncertain so it’s been a little trying that way.”