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Dry, windy weather making work tough for firefighters in northern Alberta

Weather conditions continue to challenge firefighters battling the gigantic Chuckegg Creek blaze a few kilometres southwest of High Level, Alta., as another northern Alberta community faces a looming wildfire threat.

Chuckegg Creek wildfire near High Level has burned more than 107,000 hectares

Helicopters are being used to fight an out-of-control wildfire that continues to burn near High Level, Alta. (George Barnes)

Dry and windy conditions continue to challenge firefighters battling the gigantic Chuckegg Creek blaze a few kilometres southwest of High Level, Alta., as another northern Alberta community faces a looming wildfire threat.

In the Slave Lake forest area, a new wildfire started Sunday about 14 kilometres southeast of Trout Lake, a community 300 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie that is home to about 350 people. 

Ground crews, air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers are all being used to fight the out-of-control fire which now covers more than 300 hectares of boreal forest.

A provincial emergency alert issued on behalf of Peerless Trout First Nation on Sunday night said residents of the remote community should be prepared to leave on short notice.

Wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather said winds have been blowing the fire toward the community, and residents should be prepared for a possible evacuation.

 A cold front was expected to arrive Monday, bringing dry air and variable winds that officials say will produce extreme fire conditions.

"It doesn't look like there was much growth overnight, but the winds were blowing that fire in a northerly direction, which is toward the communities there," Fairweather told CBC News on Monday morning.

"You don't want another big fire starting up, so we're very concentrated on making sure any new fire that starts up is actioned very quickly. All of our resources are on these big fires right now."

At the same time, firefighters are still keeping a close eye on weather conditions as they battle the fire near High Level.

The Chuckegg Creek fire is approximately 127,000 hectares in size, the latest report from Alberta Wildfire said.

Watching the forecast

A shift in wind direction created challenges for firefighters Sunday, but officials expect winds to push flames to the northwest, away from the town, by Monday afternoon. 

"We're watching the forecast again today, and it's forecast that the winds may shift back, which would benefit us," Fairweather said. "But we are expecting very high temperatures and very low humidity, which could obviously increase the fire intensity out there.

"Our biggest concern is that eastern side of the fire, closest to the town." 

Fairweather said firefighters have spent days building a fire break along the outskirts of High Level. While the break should be large enough to withstand the shifting winds, there is always a chance that the flames could infiltrate the townsite.

"The embers from a fire can travel quite a distance," he said. "We've seen them travel over a kilometre, particularly on the Fort McMurray fire a few years back. Those embers can land in different area of the forest, ignite that area of the forest and burn, so that's something we will be watching for." 

The Chuckegg Creek fire is one of five currently burning out of control in the province; 9 others are under control as of 11 a.m. Monday.

Poor air quality

Heavy smoke from wildfires has resulted in a 24-hour heavy smoke warning for communities in northern Alberta.

Smoke from wildfires is causing poor air quality and reducing visibility in some areas, a statement from Environment Canada said Monday.

People may experience symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath. People with breathing difficulties are encouraged to stay indoors.

Children, seniors, and those with cardiovascular or lung diseases such as asthma are especially at risk.

Almost 5,000 people from High Level and nearby First Nations have been out of their homes for a week since the areas were evacuated May 20.

Financial aid

Evacuees started receiving provincial emergency funds for gas, food and other expenses on Sunday through Interac e-transfers.

Adults get $1,250 and children $500.

Evacuees can also receive benefits at evacuation reception centres starting Monday.

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu visited a reception centre in Grande Prairie on Monday, alongside Tracy Allard, the MLA for Grande Prairie.

"I don't think that the process was slow," Madu told media at the reception centre. "I think that we moved quickly. And since then, we've been doing everything to make sure we've got to this particular point.

"I didn't hear a single person out there who complained that the process was slow."

Madu said the government has doled out $2.2 million to about 2,200 evacuees so far.

Payments took about five days in 2011 for evacuees of the Slave Lake fires and eight days in 2016 for residents of Fort McMurray.

Officials have said the evacuees should not expect to return home before sometime later this week.

In a video posted online Sunday afternoon, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he planned to visit the provincial emergency operations centre in Edmonton to monitor the conditions.

"I want to thank our tremendous emergency personnel and firefighters for all of the great work that they have been doing to create the best possible preparation for this change in the direction of the winds so we're hoping and praying for the best tonight," Kenney said in the video.

The smoke from wildfires has prompted a heavy smoke warning for northern Alberta communities. (Héloise Rodriquez-Qizilbash/CBC)

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