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Winds helping in battle against fire threatening northern Alberta town of High Level

HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — Fire officials say the winds continue to be favourable as crews battle a large wildfire burning a few kilometres from a northwestern Alberta town.

Nearly 5,000 people have cleared out of High Level and nearby First Nations with flames licking at the southern edge of the community, which is about 750 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Winds are forecast to be out of the southeast for the next several days, pushing the fire away from homes and other building.

“The fire is actually burning on the southwest side of High Level headed northwest,” said Bruce Mayer, the assistant deputy minister of Alberta’s Agriculture and Forestry Department.

“The forecast for the next few days is the strong gusty winds will be from the southeast to east and northeast, which are all favourable from a High Level perspective.” 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the fire is about five kilometres from the town. Official reports said flames were within three kilometres.

Kenney said no buildings have been damaged and the evacuation of the town on Monday went off without incident. 

“I’m pleased to say it was a safe, orderly evacuation thanks to the co-operation of residents and first responders,” Kenney said.

Evacuee reception centres have been set up in Slave Lake and High Prairie.

Officials with the Town of Slave Lake said about 700 people had registered at the Slave Lake reception centre as of mid-morning Tuesday.

“Steady flow of evacuees all night there, coming throughout the night,” said Mayor Tyler Warman. “Things went well, went smoothly.

“People are very calm, very patient.”

He said they’ve booked a bunch of hotel rooms for anyone who needed one.

“We were down to the wire, but we were able to house them all,” said Warman. “We do have cots potentially available here in the future if needed, if we needed to set something up on a wider scale.”

Warman, who was a town councillor and firefighter during a 2011 wildfire that destroyed parts of Slave Lake, said he’s happy that the community is able to help its neighbours.

“We’re excited to pay it forward a little bit,” he said.

Officials were also arranging for pets to be housed in Slave Lake during the evacuation.

Other evacuees were asked to register with the Red Cross.

They were told to prepare for three days away from their homes and Kenney said they could be out for as many as five days.

About 20 patients were moved from the High Level hospital over the long weekend.

The fire is rated at a Level 6, the most intense rating on the scale. That means flames are jumping from treetop to treetop. The last estimate at noon Tuesday put the size of the blaze at about 800 square kilometres. The blaze had cut power to the town and it wasn’t expected to be restored until at least Tuesday evening.

Almost 90 firefighters were working on the edge of the fire closest to High Level, keeping the flames away from the town. Heavy-duty sprinkler systems were brought in to wet down buildings.

Kenney said more firefighters from Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia were expected to be on the ground in Alberta in the next two days as part of national agreements to share firefighting resources.

“These resources are very much appreciated,” he said. “We’d like to thank those governments and our fellow Canadians for coming to our assistance and we will certainly be proud to return the favour when needed in the future.” 

The premier urged residents to be cautious as the fire danger in many parts of the province is considered extreme.  

“Unfortunately the dry conditions in northern Alberta are expected to continue for the foreseeable future with the fire danger possibly increasing this week.”

There are four other fires classified as out of control in northern Alberta, including two that are burning about 20 kilometres north and 30 kilometres north of Slave Lake.

The Alberta government issued a fire ban and restricted off-highway vehicle use for numerous parts of the province late last week due to forecasts that called for little precipitation and strong winds.