Alberta town evacuated 8 years ago opens doors to High Level fire evacuees

A mandatory evacuation order remains in place for the town of High Level and parts of Mackenzie County.

Officials don't yet know when residents who've fled to Slave Lake can return

A fire burns at the side of the road as vehicles leave High Level, Alta., on Wednesday. (Stefanie Brown handout/The Canadian Press)

Just eight years ago, Roland Schmidt was forced from his home in Slave Lake, Alta., in the moments before a wildfire swept through the town.

Now, he's the one lending a helping hand, as hundreds of evacuees forced from their homes by a wildfire near High Level, Alta., stream into town, looking for a place to stay.

High Level is about 500 kilometres north of Slave Lake, which in turn is about 250 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Schmidt, who's the director of finance for the town of Slave Lake, said 1,065 people have registered at the town's temporary emergency operating centre.

The town is ensuring evacuees have the food, shelter and access to medical services they need, he said.

The Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level is the largest active wildfire in Alberta.

"Having that little bit of understanding for what they are going through is helping us to provide for their needs, to provide a helping hand, or a helping word to get them through," Schmidt told CBC Edmonton AM host Mark Connolly.

The 1,065 people who have registered in Slave Lake are only a fraction of the nearly 5,000 residents from High Level and parts of nearby Mackenzie County who have been forced from their homes due to the Chuckegg Creek wildfire. People fleeing the fire have also been told to report to evacuation centres in Peace River, High Prairie, Grande Prairie, Fort Vermilion and Hay River. 

Shift in weather predicted over weekend

As of Thursday morning, the direction of the wind was blowing the fire away from town, said High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer, who also warned that things can change quickly.

"We are anticipating a change in weather patterns, so we are doing a lot of proactive, pre-burning on the fuel that hasn't been burned around the town," she told CBC News Network on Thursday.

Crews began controlled burns between the town and the fire along the highways leading south and west from the town in order to remove fuel.

The winds are predicted to shift on Saturday and Sunday, the mayor said. There is no rain in the immediate forecast.

To prepare for any shift in winds, the town is using sprinklers on properties, and firefighters have set up fire barriers around the town.

A special air quality statement has been issued for the region, with smoke from the fire causing poor air quality and reduced visibility. 

Sprinklers are being used in High Level, Alta., as a precautionary measure. (Raffy Boudjikanian/CBC News)

As of 4 p.m. Thursday, the fire was about three kilometres south of High Level.

"This out-of-control wildfire is almost 92,000 hectares," the update said.

A mandatory evacuation order remains in place for the town of High Level and parts of Mackenzie County, which is south of High Level.

McAteer said she can't say when people will be able to return to their homes.

"We don't have a timeline," she said. "There are a lot of factors. The threat is still imminent, even though you don't see the big, huge plumes of smoke and the fire. It does move through the swamp areas and the marshland. The big test will be when we have that wind shift."

Slave Lake residents remember 2011 fire

The uncertain timeline means Schmidt, and the residents of Slave Lake, will have plenty to do to help residents of High Level in the days to come.

Schmidt said helping others now brings back memories of his own experience in Slave Lake in 2011, when a wildfire forced the town's 7,000 residents to flee. In that fire, about one-third of the properties in town were destroyed or damaged.

He described that 2011 experience as "surreal" and dream-like.

"We saw the wall of fire closing in," Schmidt recalled. "We were told to get in our vehicle and get going. I quickly ran home and got my wife and my kids. My wife picked up our four cats in one scoop and threw them in a bankers box. We jumped in our vehicle and got out of town."

He said residents of Slave Lake are eager to do everything they can to help people displaced by this fire, after so many people helped them back in 2011.

"We, as a community, want to pay that forward and provide all the help and the support that we can."


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