As of June 18, more than 9,000 people were out of their homes due to wildfires in Alberta, including about 700 from the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement, who were forced to leave May 26.
Three areas were evacuated Monday, including several communities to the south of High Level overnight, as the driest conditions in more than 40 years continue to fuel wildfires in the region.
At around 11 p.m., immediate evacuation orders were declared for the following areas of northwest Alberta:
- Everyone in the hamlet of La Crete
- Rural areas from outside the hamlet east of Steep Hill Creek, also known as Range Road 164, to Range Road 150, south of the Peace River and north of Highway 697.
- Rocky Lane and High Level areas north of the Peace River, west of Range Road 150, south of Highway 58 and south and southeast of High Level, including the Dene Tha’ First Nation’s Bushe River and Beaver First Nation’s Child Lake reserve and Boyer River reserve.
On Wednesday, June 19 at 4 p.m., another immediate evacuation order was issued:
- Mackenzie County, anyone north of Highway 697, south of the Peace River and west of Steep Hill Creek, also called Range Road 164, must immediately evacuate.
“The wildfire is advancing quickly,” read a message on the Mackenzie County Facebook page Tuesday night. Evacuees were told to use Highway 58 to leave the area, and people were encouraged to take their RVs or holiday trailers.
MacKenzie County reeve Josh Knelsen believes the majority of people loaded up their trailers and moved to a safe area.
“The strong majority is doing that – is just moving to friends and families that are out of the evacuation area,” Knelsen said on Tuesday. “And there’s also some that have, to my understanding, gone to Slave Lake and Red Earth [Creek] or wherever else in the province.”
All Mackenzie County evacuees are required to register at the Fort Vermilion Mackenzie County Office, and Bushe River evacuees were told to register at the Four Chiefs Complex in Bushe River before making their way south to Edmonton.
An alert to be prepared for evacuation on short notice remains for the area west of Steep Hill Creek, Range Road 164, south of the Peace River to Township Road 1010.
Other regions on evacuation alert are:
- High Level
- Mackenzie County
- MD of Lesser Slave River (Hamlet of Widewater between the west entrance and Widewater Drive; and Lakeview Estates)
- Bigstone Cree Nation 166 A, B, C and D
- Municipal District of Opportunity 17 (Hamlet of Wabasca, Hamlet of Sandy Lake, Hamlet of Chipewyan Lake)
Knelsen said it has been a bit of a surreal experience, given the extent of the evacuations the area has already experienced this spring.
“Obviously it gets a little bit frustrating because High Level just went through an evacuation and we evacuated all our seniors from High Level, Fort Vermilion, and La Crete, and now we’re doing the same thing again,” he said, adding residents are resilient.
Very active fire
Monday was a very active fire day, according to Alberta Wildfire. As of 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Chuckegg Creek wildfire was 324,209 hectares — up from 300,000 Monday night. The province said the fire moved 15 kilometres in total on Monday.
On Tuesday, heavy smoke on the east side of the fire impeded air operations until about 3 p.m. However, the shade slowed the fire spread.
“When the smoke cleared and the sun came out, fire activity increased,” the province said in a Tuesday evening update. “Afternoon winds and embedded thundershowers with associated wind, further increased fire activity, pushing the fire eastward towards the Peace River and La Crete.”
As of 7 p.m., the fire had not jumped the river and there were no spot fires across the river. Air tankers couldn’t attack the east side of the Peace River — to prevent spot fires and forward progression of the fire towards La Crete — but smoke was too heavy.
The fire is about two kilometres from the river at the oxbow north of La Crete, and about 10 kilometres back from the river in a line directly west of La Crete.
“The latest size estimate we have for the Chuckegg Creek wildfire, which is just to the southwest of the Town of High Level, is 325,000 hectares,” wildfire information officer Derek Gagnon said Tuesday. “That’s approximately five times the size of Edmonton.
“What we’ve seen the last couple of days is that there’s been some more activity on that southeastern edge of the fire, where it’s been across Highway 35 and now it’s pushing back north again into some fuel that it hasn’t burned previously.”
Gagnon said in order to get a good handle on the fires, northern Alberta needs a period of sustained rain.
“We need a period of a couple days, maybe a few days, where we see continued rain, continued low temperatures, high relative humidifies, where a lot of precipitation falls on that fire, gets it wet, gets it easy enough for us to get in there and contain it and also knock down the intensity of the fire within the perimeter,” he said.
The province said the area would need to see at least 20 ml of rain to make even a slight difference to fire intensity.
There are currently 2,400 firefighters working across the province.
“The two largest of the wildfires – Chuckegg Creek fire as well as the Mcmillan Complex wildfire – we’re expecting that it would be unlikely for them to be labelled extinguished before next year,” Gagnon said.
Jackpot Creek wildfire
Further north, the out-of-control Jackpot Creek wildfire forced people in the northernmost community in Alberta — Indian Cabins — to evacuate to the Northwest Territories via Highway 35.
There are 116 firefighters and support staff, 11 helicopters and two pieces of heavy equipment working on the 75,680-hectare wildfire.
The evacuations late Monday night come about six hours after residents in a remote part of the more centrally located Slave Lake region were also ordered to evacuate again due to the McMillan Complex wildfire burning six kilometres to the southeast.
Everyone in the Trout Lake area was told around 5 p.m. to evacuate immediately, while residents slightly north in the remaining areas of Peerless Trout First Nation were told to be prepared to evacuate on short notice.
Evacuees were told to once again to go to the Back Lakes Arena in Red Earth Creek or the Bridge at Narrows to register and receive further information.
A reception centre was set up at the Super 8 hotel in west Edmonton, and rooms at two other hotels were also being made available.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 360 people had registered at the evacuation centre in Red Earth Creek and 215 people had arrived at the hotels in Edmonton, according to band manager & director of emergency services Jason Wigton.
He expected residents would be out of their homes for several days, or until fire crews got the northern edge of the wildfire under control.
As of Tuesday evening, the McMillan Complex wildfire was more than 275,000 hectares.
The north and northwest portions of the fire remained the most active, and Alberta Wildfire said that aside from those areas, the fire activity remained minimal and the southern sections near Wabasca didn’t pose any imminent threat at this time.
Alberta Wildfire noted that a slight change in weather conditions overnight should bring a cold front into the area Tuesday, shifting the wind from the southeast and towards the southwest. No communities in the immediate area were expected to be affected by the forecasted shift.