Battling the blaze

Experts predict another busy wildfire season ahead

By Dawn Booth, Connect Weekly

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Water bombers and ground crews were battling the outbreaks as of April 29, starting with a bush fire in Parsons Creek. The next day, flare ups ignited on the Abasand trails. Photo by Serghei Cebotari

In the midst of a matchstick-dry spring, Fort McMurray wildfire hazards have ignited an early season.

According to the Alberta Wildfire and Environment Canada, last year’s wildfire record hit an all-time high in Western Canada with more than 1,800 fires burning close to 500,000 hectares of land with the greatest human impact taking place with evacuations in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

With multiple forest fires threatening residents’ health and homes last weekend, the public risk level is still on watch.

Several press conferences led by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo were held throughout the week with updates from Mayor Melissa Blake and officials from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to keep the public well-informed.

With the largest wildfire – located west of the city – doubling in size on Monday night from 1,285 hectares to 2,600, the RMWB’s Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen reminded media at Tuesday morning’s press conference that the priority is not estimating the size of the fire, but ensuring the public’s safety.

“The primary goal of Alberta forestry and regional emergency services is not how big that fire is,” Allen said. “The primary goal is to figure out how to put that thing out, how to keep people safe, how to project where it’s going to go and what we need to do to control that fire.”

Water bombers and ground crews were battling the outbreaks as of April 29, starting with a bush fire in Parsons Creek. The next day, flare ups ignited on the Abasand trails.

Local resident and photographer Serghei Cebotari was out hiking on Saturday afternoon in the Abasand area when he first discovered the fire.

“I was going to fly my drone in Abasand, but it turned into fire reportage,” he shared in an email interview on April 30.

As high temperatures and winds continued, two additional Sunday bush fires left over 700 residents fleeing their homes from west of the city, after Mayor Blake announced two mandatory evacuations for people living in Prairie Creek and the Centennial Park sub-divisions, as well as a voluntary evacuation for Gregoire residents on May 1.

From the sky to the ground, close to a hundred firefighters have been battling the west fire, while hundreds of volunteers had been helping those at risk. Wildrose Party Leader and MLA of Fort McMurray-Conklin Brian Jean said he’s proud of his community and how residents continue to volunteer in any way they can.

“I think everyone wants to thank the Emergency Services of the RMWB- some of the bravest men and women I know — who worked tirelessly all day to control the fire and when nightfall came and the air support was grounded, they all picked it up a notch and worked through the night to ensure there was a home for the evacuees to return to,” Jean said on Tuesday.

As of press time, fires continue to devastate the Fort McMurray area. Photo by Serghei Cebotari

As of press time, fires continue to devastate the Fort McMurray area. Photo by Terri Windover, Connect Weekly

“Once again, I am so proud of our community as everyone pulls together to help those in need. Hundreds opened their homes to families being evacuated, many were total strangers who offered their help to neighbours in need. The strength of our Region knows no bounds. Even before there was a call for volunteers there were people already heading to the evacuation center because they knew people were in need and they wanted them to know they were not alone.”

Christina Traverse of Mush McMurray was among the hundreds of residents in the Prairie Creek area being evacuated. Traverse and her family members were left in a mighty task of not only evacuating themselves, but their horse from the Clearwater Horse Club, her 32 sled dogs and three house pets.

With three separate fire risk locations to go to, Traverse said it’s not an experience she ever wants to go through again.

“On my street, you could tell people were panicked, especially us,” she recalled. “We had to pack up our animals and evacuate our home. It was a surreal feeling when having to look around my bedroom and decide what goes with me and what can burn to the ground. This is something I hope to never experience again.”

Traverse was able to get all her animals to safety and joined hundreds of her neighbours at the evacuation centre set up at MacDonald Island. Because she had 32 dogs to care for, MacDonald Island officials brought her to a side field beside the SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place.

She shared how she voluntarily slept on the grass on Sunday evening to make sure her dogs were safe and gives credit to them for relaxing her through the stressful situation.

“The dogs have been a good distraction of the realty because I’m focused on taking care of them,” she said on Monday afternoon. “It’s almost like a Catch 22. I’m glad they are here with me.”

As of press time on Tuesday afternoon, the fire in the TaigaNova area – north of the city – had been controlled with four municipal firefighters conducting burn abatement.

For the most up-to-date information, visit www.rmwb.ca/wildfire or call the RMWB’s Pulse Line at 780-743-7000.

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-Connect Weekly-