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Officials prepare for another bout of wildfires in Alberta as temperatures to rise

Officials say they are preparing for hotter weather this coming weekend in central Alberta, posing a risk for more active wildfires after a brief reprieve.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith meets with members of the military in Edmonton who are on stand-by to help with the wildfires before she gave an update on the situation in Alberta on Monday May 8, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Officials say they are preparing for hotter weather this coming weekend in central Alberta, posing a risk for more active wildfires after a brief reprieve.

"The fire danger remains high in many northern areas of the province, which means that we can still see active wildfire behaviour there," Christie Tucker, with Alberta Wildfire, told reporters Tuesday. 

"But in much of the southern and central parts of the province, firefighters have been helped by cooler temperatures and humidity."

Tucker said the mild conditions make it easier for crews to access fires and bring in heavy equipment to help create fire breaks around communities.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 88 wildfires burning in the province, with 24 out of control. There were 24,000 people displaced. 

Indigenous Services Canada said in a release that nine First Nations were under threat. That includes Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, 360 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, where 1,600 people were forced to leave. Fire has destroyed 45 structures in the community, including homes and an elders centre. Power infrastructure was also destroyed. 

Tucker said more than 20 wildland firefighters from Yukon have arrived in Alberta and joined crews from British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

Residents of Edson, more than 250 kilometres west of Edmonton, were able to return Monday after a fire forced them out Friday night. 

Mayor Kevin Zahara said some residents were emotional as they entered the town and were greeted by firefighters.

"People are happy to get back to normal, but there has been some financial hits to people with the cost of evacuating and rooms and food and losing income," he said.

The province announced financial help for those ordered to leave was to start Tuesday. Evacuees who have been away for seven or more days can apply for one-time payments of $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent child.

Edson was evacuated for three days. 

"It has left the community of 8,000 people without any financial support," said Zahara. 

"Earlier today, my wife witnessed somebody that went to go buy some groceries and her card was declined." 

Zahara said his wife picked up the tab. 

"That's something that people shouldn't have to go through right now." 

Zahara said the fire was moving fast and 60-metre flames could be seen from the town. 

"When we left here Friday night, there was a very, very good chance that we were going to lose this community to this wildfire … it was a scary situation." 

In Fox Lake, about 550 kilometres north of Edmonton, fire destroyed homes, an RCMP detachment, a store and the community's water treatment plant.

James Mills, a member of the Little Red River Cree First Nation who has called Fox Lake home for the past two decades, said it's been stressful.

“We all know somebody in the community that’s either lost a home or is on the verge of losing their home.”

Mills said as far as he is aware, his home is still standing. He said he and his family are staying in High Level, where most evacuees went. 

“We’re just hanging out basically just waiting day by day to see what happens."

Mills said the tight-knit community has come together to help one another any way they can, and he and his fiancé have been volunteering to transport people, food and items. He also thanked the First Nation’s leadership.

"It’s really nice and really overwhelming to see the amount of support that we’re all getting.”

Premier Danielle Smith has said military personnel are to be deployed to prevent looting and maintain order in evacuated communities.

Colin Blair, executive director for Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said the details are still being worked out. 

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told reporters in Ottawa that the Canadian Armed Forces is prepared to provide airlift resources and engineering and construction equipment, but military services to protect evacuated communities shouldn't be on that list.

"We're strongly of the opinion that (this) is primarily a policing responsibility," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2023.


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

Angela Amato and Emily Blake, The Canadian Press