Fires fuel weekend evacuations

Sixteen wildfires — including one that caused the evacuation of 200 campers — kept firefighters busy in Clearwater County on the long weekend.

Sixteen wildfires — including one that caused the evacuation of 200 campers — kept firefighters busy in Clearwater County on the long weekend.

A large fire near Phyllis Lake, 12 km west of Caroline, started on Sunday and was fuelled by high winds. Firefighters feared the 11-hectrare blaze, reported at 2:10 p.m., would close in on a pipeline/power line right-of-way.

This was a “major concern” because it’s the only way out of the area for many campers, said Cammie Laird, fire chief for the Clearwater region.

People camping along the right-of-way were told to immediately leave the area — and Laird said this message wasn’t a hard sell, since smoke was visible. “People were very co-operative.”

Maria Sharpe, provincial fire information officer for the Clearwater area, said so many new fires igniting within a few days is unusual, even for a long weekend.

Most of the wildfires reported within the Rocky Mountain House-Caroline areas over the weekend started on Sunday, during high winds and drying conditions.

Provincial firefighters fought the blazes with four helicopters, a water bomber plane, six attack crews with waterpacks on their backs, two monitoring crews and two crew supervisors.

Some of the crews were dropped off in remote areas by helicopter.

She estimated that about 45 people were involvedin weekend efforts, not including the additional 15 crew members from Caroline and Clearwater County who helped fight the Phyllis Lake fire. The RCMP, provincial parks workers and peace officers also assisted.

The province called in additional firefighting teams from Calgary and Edson.

“But we did have enough people and they did a good job,’’ said Sharpe, noting seven of the 16 fires are now under control, and the other nine were extinguished.

Four of the fires were caused by downed power lines, one resulted from lightning, and the rest — including the Phyllis Lake fire — are believed to have been caused by careless campers.

Sharpe said these fires are still under investigation, and charges could be laid if investigators uncover who started them.

The Phyllis Lake blaze was the largest. But another fire burned about 9.3 hectares in a remote area southeast of Nordegg. There were also two separate fires west of Burnstick lake — five hectares and 2.2 hectares in size.

The other 12 blazes were all each less than a hectare.

Laird said Sunday’s rain and significant snowfall helped contain and extinguish the flames, and will make the ground moister, hopefully reducing fire danger.

“We’ll have to see what Mother Nature gives us to work with.”

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com