Thousands of people are making their way back to High Level, Alta., and surrounding communities Monday after fleeing from the threat of wildfire two weeks ago.
But some residents never left, even as the now 275,000-hectare Chuckegg Creek wildfire ravaged forest nearby.
Kevin Lourenco, owner of Kevin’s Your Independent Grocer, stayed behind when the evacuation order was issued on May 20 to keep the store running, so fire crews could get groceries
Despite the presence of emergency crews, he said, the community was eerily quiet.
“It was a bit of a surreal moment, especially standing at the store and you look south and to the west and seeing the smoke from the fire,” Lourenco told CBC News. “[You’re] just kind of unsure, really, how close it was or how actually big it was.”
When the announcement was made Sunday that the evacuation order would be lifted, High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer assured residents that grocery stores, banks and the hospital would be ready for their arrival.
Lourenco and his employees spent the past few days preparing for Monday’s influx of residents, stocking shelves and replenishing their supply of meat and produce.
“[I’m] elated that we can get some sense of normality back, but still knowing that the fire still is active, we are still on an evacuation alert and not an order,” he said.
Business has been predictably slow over the past two weeks and about half of the refrigerated and frozen product in the store had to be tossed after the power went out on May 20.
“It did take a financial toll on my business, but … that’s not important,” Lourenco said. “The most important thing is that no lives were lost and homes were saved and the community will come back.”
The Tim Hortons in High Level has also been open since residents fled, supplying free coffee and tea to the town’s dramatically-reduced population.
Co-owner Jared Synder said the restaurant was fully operational and product deliveries came in on schedule.
“Kudos to everyone involved on that because you know if we ran out of coffee, that’d be a tragedy,” he said with a laugh.
Snyder said the restaurant was quiet Monday shortly after the order lifted at 10 a.m., likely because most evacuees went straight home.
Over the past two weeks, he witnessed the bustle of activity as helicopters flew overhead and crews performed controlled burns near the restaurant.
Despite being just a couple of kilometres away from the smoke and flames, Snyder said he wasn’t anxious, as he had faith in the decisions being made by the town and emergency crews.
“The stress levels were just whenever we’d get a big lineup. I didn’t really worry about the fire and my personal safety very much,” he said.
“A lot of my friends here in High Level were evacuated, and they were feeling very helpless because, you know, you’re out of town. You can’t really do anything, you don’t really know what’s going on.”
Snyder and his team were happy to stay open at the request of emergency services, he said.
“It was important for us because … this is our community,” he said, “and we’re just very grateful for the opportunity to help in any sort of way, even if it’s just coffee and doughnuts.”