Chelsea Kazonay and members of her family piled into two trucks Monday for an unplanned 300-kilometre road trip in order to escape an intense wildfire that is jumping from treetop to treetop in northern Alberta.
Ms. Kazonay lives in High Level and her sister lives in Bushe River, which is part of the Dene Tha First Nation near High Level. These communities have been evacuated and so, for now, Ms. Kazonay and her crew are on the K’atlo’deeche First Nation near Hay River, NWT.
“I just grabbed what I could bring for the kids,” Ms. Kazonay said in an interview on Tuesday. “Pampers, wipes, and the clothes that they need. That’s all we have with us.”
The Chuckegg Creek wildfire forced roughly 5,000 people out of High Level and neighbouring First Nations communities. The fire is within a few kilometres of High Level, which is about 740 km north of Edmonton. It had burned through about 800 square kilometres by Tuesday afternoon and is one of six fires that are out of control in Alberta.
It is hot, dry and windy in northern Alberta right now and officials expect the fire danger to increase.
“We need to be prepared for the long haul this summer,” Premier Jason Kenney said at a press conference on Tuesday. He planned to fly over the burning area on Tuesday and visit the emergency operations centre in High Level on Tuesday.
Roughly 90 firefighters from Alberta are battling the blaze and firefighters from British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario are coming to help, Mr. Kenney said. There have been about 430 wildfires since March and 30 of those are active now, officials said. The fire near High Level is the province’s priority, officials said.
The government is working with the nearby sawmill and oriented strand board facility to ensure they have sprinkler systems ready. Officials are also preparing sprinklers on the south side of High Level.
The fire is burning on the southwest side of High Level and winds are blowing it away from town, according to provincial officials. This makes it much different than the wildfire that burned up part of Fort McMurray in 2016. Wind pushed that fire, dubbed “the Beast," into town, destroying thousands of homes and businesses. Roughly 88,000 people had to evacuate Fort McMurray that May. About 7,000 inhabitants were evacuated from Slave Lake in May, 2011, because of a wildfire. Slave Lake is one of the reception centres for the Chuckegg Creek fire.
So far, this fire has not damaged any homes, although it knocked out cell service and electricity in the area.
Allan Kulscar and his wife were at his son’s hockey tournament in Calgary just before High Level’s evacuation order came down. Friends in High Level ferried their daughter out of town and they have since reunited. They are staying in Grimshaw with another hockey family. Because the Kulscars were out of town when the evacuation order was made, they were unable to grab any valuables or mementos.
Mr. Kulscar, however, reminds himself that material goods are just that.
“The people that live in [houses] are the ones that make the memories, and they are out," he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Ms. Kazonay is staying at the Dene Wellness Centre in the Northwest Territories. So far, 18 people have registered there, according to the band. Ms. Kazonay is not sure how she and her entourage will get home after spending all their money on gas driving north.
“We’ll make it by," Ms Kazonay said. “We always do.”
With reports from The Canadian Press