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High Level mayor urges fast financial aid for wildfire evacuees

The mayor of a northwestern Alberta town urges the province to get financial aid flowing quickly to evacuees as firefighters prepare for shifting winds that could push a powerful wildfire toward the community.

'Some of our most vulnerable people are out there right now without funds,' Crystal McAteer says

High Level, Alta., Mayor Crystal McAteer says she called Premier Jason Kenney's office on Thursday to ask his government to sign off on preloaded debit cards for evacuees. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The mayor of a northwestern Alberta town is urging the province to get financial aid flowing quickly to evacuees as firefighters prepare for shifting winds that could push a powerful wildfire toward the community.

Crystal McAteer of High Level said she called Premier Jason Kenney's office on Thursday to ask his government to sign off on preloaded debit cards for about 5,000 people who fled the town and nearby communities on Monday.

"We're not as affluent as other communities and some of our most vulnerable people are out there right now without funds," McAteer told reporters.

She said she believes the cards — for gas, food and other expenses — should have been available at reception centres by now.

It took just over a week for such cards to be available after a wildfire forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray in 2016. In 2011, cards were made available for evacuees of the Slave Lake fire five days after they were forced out.

In both cases, every adult evacuee got $1,250, with another $500 for each dependent.

McAteer urged residents to be patient.

"Unfortunately, I have to say the danger from the wildfire is not over," she said. "I understand that residents are missing their homes, and I cannot stress enough that the danger is just outside of High Level and it's very real."

Alberta Wildfire incident commander Scott Elliot said the Chuckegg Creek fire had grown to 976 square kilometres from 920 square kilometres on Wednesday. It was spreading away from High Level on Thursday.

He said wind conditions are expected to be favourable over the next three days, but a shift in the forecast could push the blaze toward the town.

Warm temps, winds, no rain a challenge

Firefighters have been conducting controlled burns on highways leading south and west from the community to remove fuel for the blaze. In the town, sprinklers have been set up and flammable debris is being removed.

The wildfire danger in the area is considered extreme because of warmer temperatures, gusty winds and no significant rainfall in the forecast.

Elliot said it has been a challenge for fire crews.

"The extreme fire behaviour has limited our ability to safely put resources in portions of the fire," he said. "However, we have been successful in actioning the fire on the east side and the north side in order to keep the fire from threatening the town of High Level."

The province says 143 wildland firefighters as well as 154 structural firefighters in town are on the ground. Out-of-province crews are expected to help out. There are also 28 helicopters and 10 structural protection units, along with air tankers and heavy machinery.

Emergency officials patrol the highway near High Level. Some 5,000 people have been evacuated from the area as wildfire threatens the town. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Patients have been safely removed from High Level's hospital, but the emergency department is open, and operating room teams are on standby to treat first responders and people providing essential services.

On Thursday, Provincial fire officials said the fire continues to spread, but has not advanced toward the
northwestern Alberta town.

The Chuckegg Creek fire now covers nearly 993 square kilometres, compared with 976 square kilometres on Thursday.

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

About 5,000 people have been evacuated from the area. The province said they should be prepared to be away from home longer than initially planned.

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