'Stay on alert': High Level fire evacuees heading home today

Thousands of weary residents of High Level can go back to their homes today for the first time since a wildfire threatening the Alberta community prompted a mandatory evacuation.

Evacuees from High Level as well as the surrounding areas of Mackenzie County and several Dene Tha’ First Nation communities are being allowed to return home.

Entry gates to High Level will open at 10 a.m. local time, but residents have been warned they must be ready to leave again in a moment’s notice if the fire threat returns.

“We’ve had a number of days there where we haven’t really seen any real fire activity, any major hot spots or flare-ups in and around the area,” Derek Gagnon, a provincial wildfire information officer, said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

Recent rain in the area also helped with the decision to let people back in, Gagnon said.

The Chuckegg Creek fire, which has been threatening the area and is the largest wildfire in the province, is close to 2,800 square kilometres in size and remains out of control.

Firefighters have built fire breaks and conducted controlled burns to protect the communities since the evacuation order was made two weeks ago. No homes or businesses in High Level have been damaged.

Scattered rain on Saturday and cooler temperatures Sunday helped quell the intensity of the fire, Gagnon said, but the massive blaze continues to challenge firefighters.

The fire has grown to more than 100 kilometres in length, stretching from north to south, he said. The flames remain powerful and unpredictable.

“While the conditions at one end of the fire can be relatively docile and allow people to move back in, we’re still working on the other end to try and get it under control,” Gagnon said.

The announcement to lift the evacuation order in the High Level area was made on the town’s official Facebook page Sunday, accompanied by a video with municipal leaders from the town, county and First Nation, along with Premier Jason Kenney, at a firefighting command post.

“Live from the forestry base, we have some excellent news to tell you today. We want to tell everybody that yes, you can come home,” High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said in the video.

More than 4,000 people can return home. McAteer said in the video that while the mandatory evacuation order will be lifted, an evacuation alert will remain in place, meaning residents should be ready to leave again at short notice if the fire threat returns.

“Please be cognizant of the fact that we are on alert and you may have to leave sometime. You may not have to leave at all, but stay on alert,” McAteer said, adding that grocery stores, banks and hospitals will be open.

“Everything’s ready so when you come back tomorrow, we’ll be very excited to see you,” McAteer said.

Evacuees in Mackenzie County and the Dene Tha’ First Nation communities of Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh can also return.

“Everybody make sure that they travel safely, there’s going to be lots of vehicles on the road and I wish you all a safe journey and welcome home tomorrow,” Dene Tha’ Chief James Ahnassay said in the video.

‘We’re hopeful’ 

The town of High Level noted in the Facebook announcement that returning evacuees will receive a re-entry package with information such as how to flush taps to clear stagnant water, as well as how and where to dispose of spoiled food.

Residents of Slave Lake, which was partially destroyed by a wildfire in 2011 and where many of the evacuees from High Level have been housed, remain on an eight-hour evacuation alert due to fires burning about 33 kilometres to the northeast.

Around 2,300 firefighters from across the country are doing their best to corral fires burning across northern Alberta. 

“With more rain in the forecast, we’re hopeful that some of these fire intensities can come down,” Gagnon said. 

“A big rain can go a long way toward getting a fire extinguished but it’s the people working on the ground to make sure all those little hot spots are out that really are the ones that push it over that final hurdle to ensure it’s extinguished.”

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