High Level fire evacuees allowed to go home

HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — Community officials say thousands of fire evacuees from High Level, Alta., as well as the surrounding areas of Mackenzie County and several Dene Tha’ First Nation communities will be allowed to return home on Monday.

The announcement was made on the Town of High Level’s Facebook page Sunday, and was accompanied by a video with municipal leaders from the town, county and First Nation, along with Premier Jason Kenney, at a firefighting command post.

“Live from the forestry base, we have some excellent news to tell you today. We want to tell everybody that yes, you can come home,” High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said in the video.

Entry gates from the north and the east of High Level, which is about 600 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, will open at 10 a.m. Monday, she said.

The Chuckegg Creek fire, which has been threatening the area and is the largest wildfire in the province, is close to 2,800 square kilometres in size and remains out of control. However, firefighters have built fire breaks and conducted controlled burns to protect the communities since the evacuation order was made two weeks ago. No homes or businesses in High Level have been damaged.

The announcement means over 4,000 people can return home.

McAteer said in the video that while the mandatory evacuation order will be lifted, an evacuation alert will remain in place, meaning residents should be ready to leave again at short notice if the fire threat returns.

“Please be cognizant of the fact that we are on alert and you may have to leave sometime. You may not have to leave at all, but stay on alert,” McAteer said, adding that grocery stores, banks and hospitals will be open.

“Everything’s ready so when you come back tomorrow, we’ll be very excited to see you,” McAteer said.

Evacuees in Mackenzie County and the Dene Tha’ First Nation communities of Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh can also return.

“Everybody make sure that they travel safely, there’s going to be lots of vehicles on the road and I wish you all a safe journey and welcome home tomorrow,” Dene Tha’ Chief James Ahnassay said in the video.

The Town of High Level noted in the Facebook announcement that returning evacuees will receive a re-entry package with information such as how to flush taps to clear stagnant water, as well as how and where to dispose of spoiled food.

Kenney commended the local leaders for their “bravery, strong leadership and remarkable confidence under tremendous pressure.” He also thanked the province’s wildfire service and other agencies that co-operated to protect the communities and surrounding farmland.

“You know things were looking very bad here a couple of weeks ago and remarkable structural work was done to build fire defences around the community. But really what we’ve seen here is a tremendous example of strong local leadership,” the premier said.

Smoke from the fire, as well as several others which continue to burn out of control in northern Alberta, have blown south in the past week and obscured visibility and prompted air quality warnings in Edmonton and Calgary.

Residents of Slave Lake, which was partially destroyed by a wildfire in 2011 and where many of the evacuees from High Level have been housed, remain on an eight-hour evacuation alert due to fires burning about 33 kilometres to the northeast.

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