Evacuation ordered for High Level, Alta. as wildfire approaches

People living in and near High Level, Alta., have been ordered to leave their homes because of danger posed by an out-of-control wildfire.

Electricity in the town of 4,000 people cut off Monday morning

The Chuckegg Creek fire burned over 350,000 hectares of forest in northern Alberta and forced the evacuation of residents in the High Level area in May 2019. (Deb Stecyk)

People living in and near High Level, Alta. have been ordered to leave their homes because of danger posed by an out-of-control wildfire.

The Town of High Level issued an evacuation order at 4 p.m. MT Monday, telling residents to secure their residences and take their personal belongings. The evacuation will be done by zones, and residents have been told to be prepared to be away from their homes for at least 72 hours. 

Mayor Crystal McAteer said about 4,000 people have to evacuate from the northern Alberta town. Alberta Health Services says 20 acute and long-term care patients have been evacuated from the Northwest Health Centre in High Level.

Shortly after 8 p.m., an evacuation order from the Chief and Council of the Dene Tha' First Nation was issued for the community of Bushe River, southeast of High Level. 

A mandatory evacuation order was issued at 11:40 a.m. Monday for Mackenzie County residents in the areas south and southeast of the town. There are 38 homes under the evacuation order, a spokesperson for Mackenzie County told CBC News.

High Level evacuees need to register at reception centres in Slave Lake or High Prairie. The evacuation route is east on Highway 58 and then south on Highway 88. According to a tweet from the Town of Slave Lake, evacuees started to arrive in the town around 9:15 p.m. 

Highway 58 to the west of the community and Highway 35 to the south are both closed.

Crews will be going door to door to notify affected residents, the town of High Level said on its website.

Residents have been offered support for moving livestock, the town posted in an update. 

Manned barricades will be set up on all roads to prevent people from entering the evacuated areas without permission, the town said.

State of local emergency

A state of local emergency was declared due to the wildfires at 11:15 a.m. on Monday. 

"Residents must prepare to leave immediately when officials order an evacuation," Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said in a news release Monday.

"It's important to stay vigilant at times like this and pay close attention to the advice of emergency management experts."

The fire near the community 450 kilometres north of Grande Prairie has burned 69,000 hectares. It has more than doubled in size since Sunday, when it was burning about 25 kilometres southwest of the town.

The fire is now about three kilometres south of the town, said Scott Elliott, incident commander for Alberta Wildfire.

"The bulk of the fire spread has been to the north and west, and that's taking the main spread of the fire away from the town of High Level," Elliott said. "But we felt in working with the mayor that the level of threat presented by this fire to the community warranted the decision that the mayor and council undertook today."

There's no relief in sight from these extreme burning conditions.- Scott Elliott, Alberta Wildfire incident commander

Electric power in the community went out around 8:45 a.m. Monday. Atco Electric is working to get it working again, provincial information officer Derek Gagnon said.

Forestry Alberta raised the wildfire danger to extreme on Monday, amid dry, hot and windy conditions.

"There's no relief in sight from these extreme burning conditions," Elliott said.

"The extreme conditions are really difficult to work in. Safety factors have limited our ability to access the fire in any sort of real, meaningful way."

Resident Deb Stecyk was packing up to leave Monday afternoon, before the evacuation order was declared in her neighbourhood. 

"We know that if we have to leave, that means we might come back to nothing like Fort McMurray or Slave Lake," she said.

"It's nerve-wracking because you just don't know."

Fire crews have started setting up sprinklers around homes and close to the hospital and other essential service buildings, she said. 

The wildfire danger in much of northern Alberta was rated as extreme, with the risk rated as high to very high in the central-west part of the province. There are seven out-of-control fires burning in the area. 

Fire bans are in place in northern Alberta, and the Edson forest area is under a fire advisory as winds and dry conditions are expected to cause the risk of wildfires to increase.