Businesses stay open for crews as wildfire creeps closer to High Level

With an out-of-control wildfire burning within five kilometres from the northern Alberta community, Tim Hortons is one of several businesses who have stayed open to serve the workers who are fighting the blaze.

‘We wanted to be here for as long as it’s safe’

From left to right, Jerick Fulgencio, Bobby Puli, Marjorie Dinamling, Xerxes Causaren, Badette Chinchontic and Sherwin Buenaventura volunteered to stay behind to support fire crews in High Level. (Leslie Snyder)

As residents of High Level, Alta., left town on Monday under a mandatory evacuation order, many stopped at the local Tim Hortons to grab a coffee or doughnut for the drive.

With an out-of-control wildfire burning within five kilometres of the northern Alberta community, the popular chain restaurant is one of several businesses that stayed open to serve the workers fighting the blaze.

"We volunteered [to stay] … we wanted to be here for as long as it's safe," said Leslie Snyder, co-owner of Tim Hortons in High Level.

She said Home Hardware is also open to provide emergency supplies as well as the Co-op Cardlock and Petro Canada Bulk for gas.

The Flamingo Inn has rooms available for any workers who need a place to stay. Alberta Health Services staff are also supporting fire crews.

Snyder asked her employees who was willing to volunteer to make sure the firefighters and emergency personnel are fed and watered.

She said all of her workers who have children evacuated with the rest of the residents on Monday — six people stayed to help.

Snyder's husband Paul and son Jared, who are also co-owners of the franchise, also remained behind to work.

Jared and Paul Snyder serve firefighters in High Level. (Leslie Snyder)

A team effort

More than 4,000 people living in and near the northern Alberta town were ordered to leave their homes on Monday afternoon by High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer.

"We spent quite a bit of time just getting people on the road and reassuring people talking about the fire, just being a point of contact and a place of comfort for anyone who is traveling," Snyder said.

Snyder noted they didn't decide to stay open to make money — they are providing all drinks for free and food at a reduced price to cover their costs.

It's been a team effort to keep the business running smoothly, she said. 

When the power went out around 9 a.m. on Monday morning because of the wildfire, Snyder said a local business quickly stepped in to make sure Tim Hortons could still serve food and have a working bathroom.

Pinnacle Services provided the biggest generator available to keep the freezer and cooler running.

People in High Level are optimisti, all the frontline people are very cheerful when they come in," said Snyder. (Leslie Snyder)

Snyder said as people have come in to fuel up or use the bathroom, they've made an effort to keep everyone's spirits high.

"Just trying to keep a good, friendly, fun atmosphere in here because we can't solve all the problems of the world but we can give you a 10 minute break from it," she said.

"People in High Level are optimistic — all the frontline people are very cheerful when they come in. I think people in the north just know how to deal with adversity and we just put our boots on and get to work."

Snyder guessed her team at Tim Hortons did about 1,000 sales through Monday as people left town. Her family and employees are currently switching on and off, allowing a few of them to get a nap in at a time.

'By the bucketloads'

The Tim Hortons delivery truck arrived on Tuesday afternoon with a resupply of coffee and food. Earlier in the day, Snyder said they were down to their last five cases.

"We can't run out of coffee. That would be a tragedy," she said. 

With the heat, cold drinks like iced caps and lemonade are also going "by the bucketloads."

The Snyder family has owned Tim Hortons in High Level for four and a half years. (Supplied by Leslie Snyder)

They'll pack up and leave when the incident command centre in High Level tells them it's become unsafe to stay, Snyder said.

For now, Snyder wants the people fighting the wildfire to know they are there to support them.

"Our plan for the next couple days is to make sure that people have hot coffee, good food and a smile when they come in here," she said.