Winds that helped prevent the flames of a ferocious wildfire from spreading into the northern Alberta town of High Level began to shift on Sunday, but officials remained optimistic their network of fire breaks and other preparations would keep the flames away.
“We can feel right now the wind is coming out of the south and the smoke will start drifting in towards town, sort of right away,” Alberta Wildfire incident commander Scott Elliot said during a media briefing on Sunday morning.
Approximately 5,000 people from the town and surrounding area were told to leave a week ago, but the prevailing winds kept the flames away from town and the fire usually stayed about three kilometres away.
That was expected to change Sunday, but Elliot said crews had been busy over the last few days getting ready.
Some of those preparations included a controlled burn to cut off a potential path of fire fuel into High Level. Crews have also gone from house to house removing debris from yards and patio furniture from decks, as well as setting up sprinklers.
More than 360 firefighters, including many who have come from outside Alberta, are on the fire lines and also in High Level working to protect property and infrastructure. They are supported by at least 28 helicopters as well as various types of heavy equipment.
“We’ve done many of the things we need to do in order to make sure the community is going to be safe from wildfire. The biggest thing for us is the conditions have continued to get worse,” Elliot said, explaining it’s gotten hotter and drier as the week wore on.
“So until we get rain, the fire behaviour situation continues to be in the extreme … That threat still exists.”
The province says the latest recorded size of the blaze is over 1,000 square kilometres.
The wind was expected to shift again later Sunday to come from the west later in the day and then from the north overnight.
Officials have said the evacuees should not expect to return before some time later this week and that provincial emergency funds for their gas, food and other expenses should be available by Monday.
“If we get through today without the fire approaching the community that will sort of test the operations that we’ve put in place over the last week and that will solidify much of the work that we’ve accomplished,” Elliot said.
“In speaking with all the firefighters we’ve been working with, we’re ready for it.”
Premier Jason Kenney said he would be visiting the provincial emergency operations centre in Edmonton once the wind shifted to monitor the conditions.
“I want to thank our tremendous emergency personnel and firefighters for all of the great work that they have been doing to create the best possible preparation for this change in the direction of the winds so we’re hoping and praying for the best tonight,” Kenney said in a video posted online Sunday afternoon.
A special air quality statement was issued Sunday because of the smoke, warning that communities in the north of the province may experience heavy smoke from the fires in the next 24 hours.