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The home of Kathryn Tarnasky was destroyed by a wildfire in Drayton Valley, Alta.Handout

Thousands more people were ordered to evacuate their homes in Northern Alberta on Sunday, as raging wildfires continued to burn homes, vehicles and thousands of hectares of forest, all the while straining the firefighting resources of local communities.

With unseasonably high temperatures expected to last at least another day, and no sign of rain in sight for a week, authorities said the situation remains dangerous and in flux.

“The wildfire situation is extremely volatile,” said Colin Blair, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, during a news conference. “Hot and dry conditions throughout much of Alberta present an ever-increasing risk of new wildfires starting, and the potential for current wildfires to grow quickly.”

More than 19,000 people were under evacuation orders throughout the province, Mr. Blair said. This was thousands more than the previous day, but down from a peak of around 31,000 earlier this month.

The province has not specified the exact number of homes destroyed in the fires. There were 87 active fires Sunday afternoon, including 24 deemed out of control, said Josée St-Onge, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire. That is up from 76 active wildfires on Friday afternoon.

As firefighters from other provinces and from the United States were deployed to the area, along with Canadian Armed Forces personnel, there were more calls from residents and local leaders to either delay the upcoming May 29 Alberta election or make accommodations for affected residents.

Although evacuation orders are expected to be lifted by that date, some are learning they have nothing to come back to.

In the week and a half since a wildfire swallowed her home in Drayton Valley, 150 kilometres west of Edmonton, much of Kathryn Tarnasky’s days have been spent compiling the contents’ list for her insurance claim – an emotional task.

She can only do a bit at a time before her eyes cloud with tears and she has to take a break. Building the list of the possessions she and her family lost involves scrolling through the thousands of photos she has saved on her phone since she and her husband, Chris, purchased the property in May, 2021.

“There are things that will never be the same,” she said.

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Chris Tarnasky (30), Kathryn Tarnasky (29), Bennett Tarnasky (9), Kerryn Tarnasky (2) and Halle Tarnasky (1.5).Handout

Early on May 4, the Tarnaskys, along with others in Drayton Valley, received an evacuation order. The family, which includes three children, piled into their camper van with only a few possessions to go to Ms. Tarnasky’s mother’s house in Alder Flats, 30 minutes away, assuming they could come back in a few days to pick up the rest. They could not.

Their family vehicle was reduced to a burnt-out shell, and because recent upgrades done to the car to qualify it for fire insurance had not yet been certified by a mechanic, it’s unlikely their insurer will cover it.

Friends set up a crowd-sourcing fund to help the Tarnaskys buy another vehicle but as for the rest of their possessions? “Money can’t replace all that,” Ms. Tarnasky said.

So far, 456 wildfires in the province have burned more than 520,000 hectares this year, more than 1,000 times bigger than the area burned at this time last year, according to the Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard.

“Our peak burning period, which is when the temperatures are at their highest and the fuels are at their driest, is still in front of us,” Ms. St-Onge said.

Climate hazards, including heatwaves and wildfire activity, have already intensified across North American and that is projected to continue, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of hundreds of climate scientists.

Like the rest of her community, Danielle Bourgeois evacuated Rainbow Lake, in northwestern Alberta, on May 6. She is staying with five friends and their six cats in High Level, about 140 kilometres to the east, and said other Rainbow Lake residents settled in campgrounds around town.

Saturday night, the evacuees held a barbecue to boost morale. “As the days go on, we’re not necessarily getting bad news but it’s not good news either, so it was really just nice to see people come together,” Ms. Bourgeois said.

Nonetheless, with the continuing uncertainty, she does not think she and her neighbours are in a good place to cast their ballots.

Postponing the provincial election would be “a good idea given the current state of Alberta right now,” she said. “With so many people displaced from their homes, it’s going to make it more difficult for them to be sure to get out and get their votes in.”

Wade Williams, mayor of Yellowhead County, west of Edmonton, said there had been delays in the provincial government response to the wildfires, including the introduction of a fire ban and the declaration of a state of emergency, because provincial ministers had not been in their offices and were focused on the election.

Speaking on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday, Mr. Williams said there were “a lot of upset people right now” and a postponement was the right thing to do, given that the fires will likely be an election issue, and a lot of people won’t go out and vote.

Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer has the power to delay voting at polling stations because of fires or other disasters, or to move voting to a different place on election day. If this is insufficient, the Chief Electoral Officer can apply to the court to halt the election in affected areas and restart voting at another time.

This could lead to a delay in the outcome of the entire provincial election.

Nancy Dodds, mayor of Drayton Valley, and Raymond Supernault, chairman of the East Prairie Métis Settlement in Northern Alberta, agreed the election should be postponed. “Do the people really want to go out to vote right now? Is that the first thing on your mind? No,” Mr. Supernault told Ms. Barton on Sunday.

The Canadian Armed Forces have deployed a response unit of around 300 personnel divided between Drayton Valley, Grand Prairie and Fox Creek to support firefighters and facilitate the evacuation of isolated communities for two weeks – three if needed – the Department of National Defence said.

More than 1,500 firefighters have been deployed in the province, including personnel from the U.S. and elsewhere in Canada. “We are using all of the resources at our disposal,” Ms. St-Onge said.

Nonetheless, the resources don’t match the needs everywhere.

Brian Cornforth, fire chief of Parkland County, just west of Edmonton, said “extreme circumstances” led him to privately hire firefighting crews from British Columbia because no more resources were available in Alberta. The crews he hired are separate from the out-of-province resources brought in by the Alberta government to fight higher priority fires, he said.

“It’s exceptional for us, and I know all the other communities are looking for the same resources. And the province is doing their very best to find those resources,” Chief Cornforth said. But it takes time, he added.

Environment Canada warned in a statement Sunday that wildfire smoke “is causing poor air quality and reduced visibility in many areas” of Northern Alberta.

“Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone’s health even at low concentrations,” the statement said, adding that people with lung or heart disease, seniors, children and those who are pregnant were at higher risk, along with those who work outdoors.

Environment Canada advised people to monitor for symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing, to stay inside if possible, and to use N95 respirator masks to reduce exposure to the fine particles in smoke.

Follow Frédérik-Xavier Duhamel on Twitter: @FxDuhamelOpens in a new window
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