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Alberta wildfire near Wabasca forces 5,000 people from homes

About 5,000 people have been evacuated from the path of a wildfire that has prompted the northern Alberta hamlet of Wabasca to declare a local state of emergency.

Local state of emergency declared; Cenovus Energy orders 1,800 oilsands workers to leave

Martin Beaver said he watched as a fire at the dump in Wabasca grew out of control on Saturday. (CBC)

About 5,000 people have been evacuated from the path of a wildfire that has prompted the northern Alberta hamlet of Wabasca to declare a local state of emergency.

On Saturday, Martin Beaver says he was at the heart of the wildfire now burning out of control. Now, he's camped out at an evacuation centre with his family, wishing he'd had more water to fight the blaze when he needed it.

"I started fighting the fire," said Beaver, saying it had started at the dump in Wabasca on Saturday.

"It spread so fast, I had it surrounded at first, I had it surrounded on the north side and it got away on the south side and I ran out of water."

With the situation worsening day by day, even hour by hour, Alberta is now under a provincewide fire ban.

Hot, dry weather has elevated the fire hazard to high, very high or extreme over most of the province.

Shortly after 2 p.m. MT Monday, the Municipal District of Opportunity and the Bigstone Cree First Nation upgraded an evacuation order to mandatory.

By Tuesday morning, there were 72 fires burning in Alberta, with 29 considered out of control. It is thought more than 20 of those fires were caused by lightning strikes in the province.

Since 10 p.m. MT on Sunday, there have been 57 new wildfires.

About 1,600 firefighters and approximately 100 aircraft are battling wildfires. Ontario and Quebec have sent additional resources to help out.

"Right now, our firefighters are starting to reach capacity," Driscoll said. "And we haven't even seen any lightning fires yet."

'We just pray for some rain'

Many of those forced from their homes are staying in Calling Lake, about 200 kilometres north of Edmonton. 

Lenny Auger and his family were attending a funeral when they received word of the evacuation. He rushed home, locked his house and videotaped the possessions inside his garage, just in case.

"It's nerve-racking," he said from the field where he is camped out with his wife and three children. An SUV packed full of pictures and paperwork sits parked nearby.
"We've seen Slave Lake go through it ... after that, you don't take a chance," said Lenny Auger, one of the residents forced to flee their home. (CBC)

Auger said he's been honest with his children about the possibility they may lose their home, a house they moved into three years ago that's surrounded by trees.

"I said, ' If it's gone, it's gone. The main thing is we're all together. Possessions can be bought again, we're together so that's all that's important,'" said Auger.  

"We just pray for some rain," he said, watching as the wind gusted and lifted up nearby tent tarps. 

"We've seen Slave lake go through it,

"After that, you don't take a chance."

Lightning in forecast

Given weather forecasts, officials expect to see fires ignited by lightning over the next couple of days, fire information officer Geoff Driscoll said.

A fire near North Wabasca Lake forced people from their homes over the weekend. Crews thought they had the fire contained on Sunday morning, Driscoll said.

"The fire challenged the fire guard and went right through it, and started burning toward the hamlet of Wabasca."

That fire has burned almost 200 hectares. Officials say it is currently spreading south and is now about two kilometres from the Bigstone Cree First Nation.

Crews are using aircraft and heavy equipment to try to slow the spread, but officials say weather conditions are making that more difficult.

Over the weekend, another fire forced Cenovus Energy to evacuate 1,800 workers from the company's Foster Creek oilsands project. The company also temporarily shut down production at one of its natural gas operations.

That forest fire, about 25 kilometres south of Foster Creek, is burning on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. It has burned about 8,000 hectares, Driscoll said.
The fire near Wabasca, Alta. (Alberta Wildfire Info)

"It's grown since Friday to that size," he said

Cenovus said it decided to send staff home because the fire threatened the only access road.

Company officials said operations will resume once the fire is under control and it's safe for staff to return.

Crews are also battling a small wildfire 22 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake that has burned 20 hectares.

Provincewide fire ban

Since April 1, 629 wildfires have burned a total of 13,098 hectares in Alberta.

The new ban, put in place at noon Monday, prohibits all open fires, including campfires in campgrounds or backcountry areas, and includes charcoal briquettes. The new fire ban applies to the province's forest protection area.

Portable propane fire pits and gas or propane stoves and barbecues are allowed.

All fire permits are suspended or cancelled and no new fire permits will be issued.

Check Albertafirebans.ca daily for detailed information about restrictions and locations.

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