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Several thousand people forced from homes as wildfires burn across Alberta

Several thousand people have been ordered to leave their homes as more than 100 wildfires burn across Alberta. "Everybody's out, everybody's alive, nobody's injured," said Steven Lacroix, managing director of Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
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

Several thousand people have been ordered to leave their homes as more than 100 wildfires burn across Alberta.

"Everybody's out, everybody's alive, nobody's injured," said Steven Lacroix, managing director of Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

As of early Saturday morning, there were 103 active wildfires in the province, with 37 listed as out of control.

An evacuation order was issued for the town of Edson and Yellowhead County Friday evening. 

Edson, about 215 kilometres west of Edmonton, has a population of more than 8,000. 

"You need to evacuate immediately," the town said on its website. 

An evacuation was ordered Thursday night for Drayton Valley, a town of around 7,000 people about 140 kilometres west of Edmonton. 

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."

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 5 o'clock this morning to hear the news and we've been going ever since." 

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," said Christie Tucker with Alberta Wildfire, 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, a store and the community's water treatment plant.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Troy Savinkoff said 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."

The Northern Store in Fox Lake was significantly damaged. The North West Company, which owns the store, said all staff are safe.

“We are currently planning support for our staff and a donation of essential products for community members displaced by the fires," said CEO Dan McConnell. "We extend our condolences to everyone impacted by the fires and especially to those families who have lost their homes.”

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

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

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

RCMP said a helicopter that was fighting wildfires in western Alberta crash-landed at the Edson airport Thursday night. The pilot was able to walk away and was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure.

United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith activated 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," said a statement from the premier's office.

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 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." 

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary

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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