Wind remains on firefighters' side in bout with northern Alberta wildfire

A fire burns near High Level, Alta. on May 21, 2019 in this handout photo from the Alberta Government.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta

HIGH LEVEL, Alta. - The provincial government says a lighter wind out of the northeast is allowing firefighters to make progress in reining in a wildfire that's forced thousands of people from their homes in northern Alberta.

Officials say the Chuckegg Creek fire remains out of control and there's still heavy smoke as it churns about three kilometres south of High Level, but favourable weather on Tuesday allowed crews to protect power poles west and south of the community.

"We are expecting lower temperatures and lighter winds, which should allow us better access to the areas of the fire on the east to create some of that fireguard, to create a bit of a barrier between the fire and the town," Travis Fairweather, a wildfire information officer with the government, said in an interview Wednesday.

He said the winds are expected to remain favourable for the next couple of days.

"Unfortunately there is no rain in the forecast and that is something we will need for the long run in order to get this fire under control eventually," said Fairweather.

The blaze has eaten its way through at least 800 square kilometres of forest, almost the same size as the city of Calgary. An update on the size of the fire was expected later in the day.

Officials said crews using heavy equipment were making progress on a fireguard around High Level and parts of the fire perimeter. They were also taking preventative measures on homes, including the removal of debris from yards and patio furniture from decks.

Nearly 5,000 people were cleared out of High Level and nearby First Nations on the long weekend when flames were licking at the southern edge of the town, about 750 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

The fire has been rated at a Level 6 — the most intense rating on the scale — which means flames are jumping from treetop to treetop in the tinder dry region.

Some 110 firefighters were working to protect structures in High Level and on other properties in Mackenzie County. Alberta Wildfire had 76 firefighters and 24 helicopters battling the blaze.

"We have plenty of firefighters on the fire as well as available throughout the province to help out," said Fairweather. "But we are looking into bringing in some firefighters from out of province just to help with it.

"Once these firefighters have been on for a number of days, obviously they are going to need some rest."

He said some firefighters from British Columbia were expected later on Wednesday.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said in a news release Tuesday that it was sending 267 personnel to Alberta to help with firefighting efforts throughout the province.

Fairweather said others are to arrive from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia later in the week.

Power has temporarily been restored to the county, the town and other nearby communities, but officials warned that it could be intermittent.

Fairweather said there were 32 active wildfires in Alberta. Four of those fires — including the Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level — were classified as out of control. Two were burning near Slave Lake and one was in the Peace River area.

A fire ban and off highway vehicle restrictions remain in effect for much of northern Alberta, he said.


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