Alberta has declared a state of emergency in response to more than 100 wildfires that have forced nearly 25,000 residents to flee their homes this week.
Premier Danielle Smith said the decision was made Saturday afternoon to protect the safety, health and welfare of Alberta. The legal mechanism grants the government extraordinary powers to dictate movement in the province, access emergency funds and mobilize additional supports to prevent the crisis from escalating.
“It’s not a step that we took lightly, but it’s one that will allow the quickest and most effective response,” said Ms. Smith, who on Saturday evening hosted her second government news conference of the day during the continuing provincial election campaign.
Ms. Smith said the federal government is on standby to provide additional resources to fight the blazes, as tinder dry conditions combined with unusually high temperatures and strong winds persist.
“Much of Alberta has been experiencing a hot, dry spring and with so much kindling, all it takes is a few sparks to ignite some truly frightening wildfires. These conditions have resulted in the unprecedented situation our province is facing today,” she told media earlier in the day.
There were 110 fires burning across Alberta on Saturday evening, with 32 listed as out of control. Evacuation orders have been made in 20 communities over the last few days, including in Drayton Valley, with a population of around 7,000, on Thursday and Edson, with about 8,000 people, on Friday evening.
Late Saturday evening, the town of High Prairie, about 370 km northwest of Edmonton was placed on a 60 minute evacuation alert with a wildfire threatening the town of 2,500.
Ms. Smith said at least 45 new wildfires have ignited in the last 24 hours, adding that 24,511 Albertans have been evacuated from their homes and roughly 5,300 other residents are under evacuation warning.
Stephen Lacroix, managing director for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told media on Saturday that patients in some hospitals are being evacuated, including those in Drayton Valley who are being sent to Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House.
The office of Bill Blair, Federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness, said there has been no formal request for federal assistance from Alberta but Ottawa stands ready to provide support.
One blaze, about 800 kilometres north of Edmonton, has destroyed a number of homes in Little Red River Cree Nation, in addition to the community’s police station and general store. There have been some cases where people have had to evacuate more than once as fires spread.
Ranchers in parts of Alberta have also been working to move livestock out of danger and are preparing equipment such as water tankers, which are normally used to spray chemicals and fertilizer in the spring, to protect fields and equipment from fires.
Mr. Lacroix said it difficult to determine the extent of damage done by the wildfires as smoke is greatly reducing visibility for firefighters and pilots in the affected areas. He did not say whether any injuries have been reported.
It is “very unusual” for this much fire activity this early in the season, according to Christie Tucker, information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire, at the news conference on Saturday.
“Late April, early May are traditionally high-risk times for wildfire because the very dry snow has melted and evaporated and we haven’t quite got full bloom on trees and grasses which helps slow down fire,” she said.
More than 350,000 hectares have burned so far in the province, which is more than what has been seen over the last five years.
She said, later on Saturday, that firefighters and air resources from Ontario and Quebec are aiding provincial efforts and that Alberta will be requesting additional support from agencies across Canada and in the United States over the next few days.
Richilda Guevarra, an evacuee from Edson, said that looking up at the sky while fleeing on Friday evening reminded her of the Eye of Sauron scene in The Lord of the Rings.
“It’s orange and black. It’s like the end of the world,” she said from a hotel in the mountain town of Jasper on Saturday morning.
Ms. Guevarra, having never experienced an emergency evacuation before, said stress and uncertainty overwhelmed her when the order to leave came down. Her partner told her to pack the necessities: important documents, her passport and three days’ worth of clothes.
He stayed back to help transport evacuees, so Ms. Guevarra initially drove to Hinton with their dog and her children, about an hour west of Edson. But, worried about the threat of wildfires reaching that area, she decided to go further southwest to Jasper. There’s no telling when they’ll be able to return home.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen right now,” she said. “We just moved in town in our house. Everything is new. What if – knock on wood – it will burn? That’s always on my mind.”
Another Edson evacuee, Andrew Stefanchuk said his family had their bags packed and ready to go. When the evacuation alert arrived, Mr. Stefanchuk and his parents were out of their home in minutes.
“Most of the town, I’d say, was on the same page,” he said.
His family had planned to stay in Hinton but kept driving after seeing how busy the area was. They continued about 340 kilometres east to his grandparents’ home in Red Deer, which took them about seven hours. He said you “can’t worry yourself sick” about a home.
“You get out of town, and you escape with your life. That is more important than whatever you left behind,” said Mr. Stefanchuk, who left with some clothes, important paperwork and valuables.
In Edmonton, an evacuation centre has been set up to provide temporary lodging, food, clothing, health and animal care. More than 1,000 people have registered at the Expo Centre due to wildfire in Drayton Valley and Brazeau County.
RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki, during a separate news conference on Saturday, said four people were arrested on Friday after breaking into a gas station in the emptied town of Drayton Valley.
“Unfortunately, some people choose to try and take advantage of others and their properties during emergency situations such as these,” he said. It is the only such incident the RCMP is aware of so far.
Mr. Zablocki said the RCMP is assisting local authorities across the province with orderly evacuations and the protection of people and property. He said it was important for residents to follow instructions from emergency personnel, including evacuation orders.
“Anyone who chooses to ignore evacuation notices is putting not only themselves in danger, but also potentially putting others, including first responders, into harm’s way.”
Kevin Kunetzki, deputy criminal operations officer for the Alberta RCMP, said approximately 550 officers were dedicated to assisting communities affected by the fires. Mr. Zablocki said those resources were deployed strategically and that out-of-province manpower could be called upon in the next few days if needed.
The raging wildfires come in the middle of a general election, with voting day scheduled for May 29. Ms. Smith said her staff have been keeping opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley up to date on the ever-evolving situation. Both leaders said Saturday that it is too soon to say whether it will delay an official vote.
“We want to make sure that every Albertan can participate in this election so, if we’re still in this position further down the road, then we might have to have that conversation,” Ms. Notley said. “Our primary focus should be public safety, getting these fires under control and getting folks back into their communities.”
The NDP has suspended six campaigns in ridings with active evacuation orders and Ms. Smith said two United Conservatives candidates have stepped away from the campaign. Ms. Notley is calling for a range of supports to be delivered to evacuees, including financial assistance and mental health services.
Mr. Lacroix said, later on Saturday, that evacuees with special needs who are unable to stay at an evacuation centre can request emergency financial assistance to cover hotel accommodations.
Elections Alberta said in a statement Friday that no returning offices or voting places have been impacted and in-person voting will continue to be offered. Individuals who have been displaced can request a special ballot.
With files from Frederik-Xavier Duhamel and Carrie Tait.