Selena Wilson and Curtis Wardill hadn’t even unpacked from a wildfire evacuation in Edson last month when another emergency alert was issued Friday evening, ordering everyone to leave town again.
“I’ve kind of had bags kept in the bedroom because I didn’t feel it was a good time to unpack yet with the weather being so crazy. I just figured we might as well be safe than sorry,” Wilson said Sunday at a campground east of Edmonton, where she and her husband have taken refuge in their camper along with their dogs, cats and budgies.
Friday’s evacuation order was hard to miss, she said. It came over their phones, friends told them about it and the gas station across their street got busy fast.
Wildfires in Yellowhead County west of Edmonton continued to grow Saturday night, a county official told an online update, but they got no closer to evacuated communities like Edson.
According to a provincial wildfire report for the region, a cold front tracked across the fire area and brought some precipitation. It was minimal, the report said, but it raised humidity enough to slow the spread of the flames.
Despite the appearance of a lull, municipal officials in the region said the evacuation orders will stand. They’ve told evacuees not to expect to return anytime before Wednesday, though officials later said a portion of the evacuation zone could be lifted as early as Monday afternoon if weather conditions are favourable.
“If you’re looking at these fires, they may look like they’re a little bit calmer. They’re still very dangerous and it just takes a little bit of wind to get these guys flowing like they were two days ago,” Luc Mercier, the chief operating officer of Yellowhead County, said during Sunday’s update.
To illustrate how quickly things can change, Mercier said officials in the county were considering scaling back their fire response and shutting down their emergency control centre last Wednesday.
“Two days later, that idea went out the door when the fires just went out of control very drastically again,” he said.
Nearly 14,000 people were under an evacuation order due to fires across Alberta, the province said Sunday.
Officials in Edson have said firefighters are going door-to-door moving flammable items including propane tanks and wood piles away from houses and other structures, as the fire continues to hold about 1.5 kilometres to the town’s south boundary.
Peace officers and members of the RCMP are also doing regular patrols.
Wilson said her doorbell camera captured an officer knocking on her front door.
“Right now, I feel like we’re OK and I’m more concerned about anybody being injured or hurt while they’re firefighting,” Wilson said, while her budgies chirped in the background.
Wardill, who worked fighting the fires last month until he “timed out,” said conditions are volatile. He’s hoping to get permission to go back to the area to check on horses that were staying at another property.
“I’m not a climate alarmist. I’ve fought forest fires on and off for, like, 25 years. It’s been incredibly dry last fall and then we went into this spring with no rain. These fires are reacting in ways that I’ve never seen myself, personally,” he said.
“I know on the frontline there was more than once that the flames overtook our equipment and we were lucky to get out when we did get out.”
Alberta’s largest regulated electricity transmission company had warned residents in areas near the town of Edson to be prepared for extended power outages, saying several transmission towers south of Edson were consumed and toppled by flames.
But AltaLink said in an update later Sunday that wind shifted the direction of the fire and that it did not progress toward its transmission line feeding those areas as anticipated.
The province said it has approximately 2,700 personnel working on wildfires. That includes support from partner agencies across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the Canadian Armed Forces.
“With all of the resources that our municipalities, the province of Alberta, many firefighters from across Canada and across the world are putting onto this fire, we still cannot say that it is safe,” Mercier said in a later update Sunday evening. “That must tell us all the severity of what we are dealing with.”
Environment Canada, meanwhile, issued special air-quality statements Sunday for a number of Alberta communities, including Edmonton and Calgary, due to smoke from the fires.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2023.
Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press