High Level fire chief works to ease youth anxiety months after Chuckegg Creek blaze

A northern Alberta fire chief is attempting to ease anxiety in classrooms six months after his town was menaced by a wildfire. 

‘It's almost like a debriefing for the kids,' Rodney Schmidt says

Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt and members of the High Level Fire Department’s Wildland Urban Interface Team speak to Grade 6 students at Spirit of the North Community School about the Chuckegg Creek fire. (Submitted by Town of High Level)

A northern Alberta fire chief is trying to ease anxiety among school children six months after his town was menaced by a wildfire.

High Level was evacuated on May 20 as the massive Chuckegg Creek fire closed in on the town 740 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Rodney Schmidt, fire chief and director of protective services for High Level, is now visiting every school, checking in on the town's youngest residents.

"They're still going to smell it over the next while, they may see smoke every now and then, so we're putting their minds at ease about that," Schmidt said in an interview Tuesday on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM

The Chuckegg Creek fire burned 355,000 hectares and destroyed 16 structures. Months after it was brought under control, there are still hot spots.

Residents started returning home about two weeks after the evacuation.

Lots of questions

Schmidt has visited 14 classes and hopes to reach eight more before Christmas. The students, in Grades 3 to 10, have had a lot of questions, Schmidt said, including why the town was evacuated in the first place. 

"The Town of High Level itself didn't receive any damage even though the fire was right inside the town limits," Schmidt said. "So sometimes it's hard for kids to rationalize why we had to evacuate."

The fire chief's visits are also an opportunity for students to share how the fire and evacuation affected them. 

"Some of them, it was an exciting time for them because they got to go to another town and spend time in a hotel," said Schmidt. "For other kids it was quite stressful because they knew family that either had losses or they had personal stress during that time. 

"It's almost like a debriefing for the kids and allows them to get some stories off their chest and make them feel a little bit better about what happened."

Schmidt is also setting rumours straight about what started the fire. It was caused by lightning, he said.   

Surrounded by forest

In a town surrounded by forest, the information is preparing the kids for future fire events. 

"The fire hazard is not going to go away," Schmidt said. "So next year they're going to see smoke, they're going to see fire trucks running out to calls, or see air tankers in the air and helicopters and so on, because it happens every year. 

"Now, with that heightened awareness from the fire from this year, we definitely want to increase that communication and make sure especially the children in the community are at ease with that situation come spring."

About the Author

Thandiwe Konguavi


Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist, born in Zimbabwe. She is a reporter/editor at CBC Edmonton. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca. Follow her on Twitter @cbcthandiwe.

With files from Pippa Reed


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