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More stress about people than things: Evacuee was ready to flee High Level wildfire

HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — As crews try to beat back a powerful wildfire outside a northwestern Alberta town, an evacuee says she’s more concerned about those fighting the blaze than she is about the townhouse she had to leave behind.

“I’m a little more stressed about the people being up there than the things, because if it burns down, our stuff, we’ll buy more,” Stefanie Brown said Wednesday after a 1,300-kilometre drive south from High Level to Medicine Hat, Alta., where her mother lives.

The 31-year-old elementary school teacher’s car was gassed up, her devices charged and her bags packed by the time her phone blared Monday with an emergency alert that High Level was being evacuated.

She knew from experience how important it was to be prepared.

Brown had to flee Medicine Hat during the 2013 southern Alberta floods and forgot to pack key documents and mementoes from her late father. Luckily, her second-floor condo stayed dry.

“The first time I didn’t listen when they told us to get prepared, and then, when it was time to go, I didn’t even know what to put in my car,” she recalled.

Brown, her eight-year-old son Mateo, seven-year-old daughter Makelti, standard poodle Cujo and miniature schnauzer Koivu piled into her hatchback to make it to safety.

There were some packing mishaps, despite the preparation. Everyone has seven changes of clothes, but no toothbrushes. There was a month’s worth of dog food in the car, but no dishes for it.

Brown said authorities handled the evacuation well.

“They did it with enough advance notice and time that people didn’t panic.”

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

The provincial government said Wednesday the Chuckegg Creek fire remained out of control and there was still heavy smoke as it churned about three kilometres south of High Level, but favourable weather on Tuesday allowed crews to protect power poles to the west and south.

“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,” said Travis Fairweather, a government wildfire information officer.

He said winds were 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.”

The blaze has eaten its way through at least 800 square kilometres of forest, almost the same size as the city of Calgary.

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.

Some firefighters from British Columbia were expected later on Wednesday. Fairweather said others are to arrive from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia later in the week.