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More than 13,000 people forced from homes as wildfires burn across Alberta

More than 13,000 people were ordered to leave their homes as 78 wildfires burned across Alberta on Friday.
Smoke from an out-of-control fire near Lodgepole, Alta., is shown in this May 4, 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Alberta Wildfire

More than 13,000 people were ordered to leave their homes as 78 wildfires burned across Alberta on Friday.

“Everybody’s out, everybody’s alive, nobody’s injured," Steven Lacroix, managing director of Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said during a news conference.

Nineteen fires were listed as out of control.

One of them, a 1,500-hectare wildfire, was near Drayton Valley, a town of about 7,000 people located 140 kilometres west of Edmonton.

An evacuation order was issued Thursday night for the community, and evacuees were asked to go to Edmonton and register at the Expo Centre.

Christie Tucker with Alberta Wildfire said 26 firefighters, three helicopters and air tankers are working on that fire.

She said crews are prioritizing work on fires affecting Drayton Valley as well as Fox Lake, Rainbow Lake and any new fires that might start.

Parts of northern and central Alberta are under fire bans after a period of windy and unseasonably hot weather.

"This is a rapidly changing situation," she said, noting more heat and extremely strong winds were expected later Friday, particularly in the north.

In Fox Lake, about 550 kilometres north of Edmonton, the province said a 4,400-hectare wildfire destroyed 20 homes, an RCMP detachment and a store.

The community's water plant may also have been damaged, said Lacroix.

RCMP spokesperson Troy Savinkoff said that in addition to losing the Fox Lake detachment and compound, including a residence, two homes that also housed officers were damaged.

He said RCMP successfully removed all firearms and exhibits from the detachment and members' families and pets got out safely. Mounties, including officers from other detachments, remain in the community. 

"We'll have to determine ways to work remotely," Savinkoff said. "And then we'll work with the community and government to try to come up with temporary arrangements and then some more permanent arrangements down the line."

Tucker said 36 firefighters, three helicopters, air tankers and heavy equipment are working on the Fox Lake fire.

In a video posted to Facebook on Thursday night, Chief Conroy Sewepagaham of Little Red River Cree Nation near Fox Lake said he believed everyone got out of the remote community 

Residents were taken out by boats and a barge. Tucker said the province also assisted with the evacuation of 115 people by helicopter.

The communities of John D'Or Prairie, High Level, Fort Vermilion and the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement are supporting Fox Lake evacuees.

Residents in Rainbow Lake were also under an evacuation notice but not required to evacuate. Tucker said a 400-hectare wildfire was moving away from that town but remained a "significant priority."

Awesome Pawsome ranch just outside of Spruce Grove near Edmonton was offering five days of free boarding for the pets of wildfire evacuees. During the Fort McMurray fires in 2016, business owner Shanin Neff said the ranch was completely full.

"We have definitely been through this before with Fort McMurray, so we're we're getting prepared today," said Neff. "We all got up at five o'clock this morning to hear the news and we've been going ever since." 

Tyson Pietsch, president of the Drayton Valley Pro Rodeo, said his crew was able to herd more than 100 horses and cattle into trailers to be moved out of the area as the wildfire caused the rodeo to shut down.

"Literally the ash was falling on us while we were loading out rodeo stock," said Pietsch, adding all animals and crew members are safe.

Pietsch said it took him nearly three hours to drive to his home in Buck Lake, which should normally take 35 minutes.

"It was manic."

United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith activated her cabinet's emergency management committee Friday and said there would be daily media briefings on the wildfire situation.

“This is a very serious ongoing situation, and Alberta’s government will continue to monitor and provide Albertans with the most up-to-date information," Smith said.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who was campaigning Friday ahead of the May 29 provincial election, took a moment out of an education announcement in Calgary to share sympathies with those affected by the fires.

"Our hearts go out to you in this very, very difficult time," she said.

Tucker said firefighters were expected to arrive from Ontario and Quebec to help. So far this year, she said 348 wildfires have burned more than 25,000 hectares of land across the province. 

“That’s significantly more wildfire activity for this time of year than we’ve certainly seen any time in the recent past," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2023.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emily Blake and Angela Amato, The Canadian Press

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