LETHBRIDGE — High winds were fuelling a massive grass fire in southern Alberta on Monday, prompting precautionary evacuations in at least three communities.
However, conditions were improving by late evening with officials saying water bombers had managed to knock back the flames, and cooler temperatures were also helping.
Residents of Coalhurst and Milk River — with populations of 2,200 and 800 respectively — were ordered out of their homes, along with rural residents in the region.
A mobile home park in the much larger city of Lethbridge was also cleared and the city declared a state of emergency.
Evacuees from Coalhurst and Lethbridge were being directed to congregate at three points — a gymnasium in Lethbridge, the Enmax building in Lethbridge and the community centre in Picture Butte.
The people of Milk River were told to go to the nearby town of Raymond.
Barbara Edgecombe-Green, spokeswoman for the town of Coalhurst, said police went door-to-door telling people to get out immediately.
The town supplied a bus for people who had no transportation.
“For the moment the town is not affected, but we are in direct line of the fire, so to make sure everyone is safe, we are evacuating the town,” Edgecombe-Green said Monday afternoon.
Residents who made it to the evacuation centre in Picture Butte said it was a nerve-wracking trip on a normally quiet highway now jammed with cars.
Once they got there, they were told it would be several hours before they would know if they could return home or would have to stay out for the night.
Dora Entz left town with her two sons and two daughters; her husband had been on his way home from Lethbridge and simply diverted to meet them in Picture Butte.
Entz said her son learned of the evacuation when he went to get gas.
“The police got out and said to him … Coalhurst is now evacuated.”
She said she heard the police issuing evacuation orders on a loudspeaker as they drove down the street in front of her house.
“I never expected that we would be evacuated,” she said. “It was such a long wait until we got out of Coalhurst. Everybody was just rushing to get out. People wanted to come back and the police wouldn’t let them, so they had to turn around. It was a hustle.”
She said she left her home with little in the way of possessions.
“Just my dog,” she said. “The kids wanted their dog and their cat. And the cat threw up in my van. Not used to driving.”
Sheila Cook, a teacher who was volunteering at the evacuation centre, said about 100 people had shown up by early evening.
“We have Lethbridge health and medical services here, the Red Cross is here, we have Lethbridge regional police and victim’s services and we have the RCMP.”
She said volunteers from the community were bringing in food.
“All of the people are being fed and they are just having a communal time — they’re just visiting with each other. If we do have to support them in a sleep over, Red Cross will be bringing out cots.”
The blaze began earlier in the day on the Blood reserve and closed Highway 3, a major roadway in the region.
“We have lots of smoke, we cannot see flames, but there is lots of smoke,” Edgecombe-Green said. She estimated the fire to be about a kilometre away from the town.
Flames were being whipped by winds gusting up to more than 100 kilometres an hour and filled the skies of Lethbridge with thick black smoke. Environment Canada issued wind warnings for most of southern Alberta.
Edgecombe-Green said all of the fire resources in the surrounding communities, including the fire department on the Blood Reserve, were working together to fight the blaze.
Much of the same area was hit by a grass fire that forced over 100 people from their homes near Lethbridge last November.
And in the spring of 2011, wildfires destroyed nearly one-third of the town of Slave Lake in northern Alberta.
It brought back some bad memories for M.A. Dulong, a woman who tweeted she had already been through that fire.
“Dear God, just moved to Lethbridge and there is a fire burning just outside of here in Coalhurst which is under evacuation warning,” she tweeted. “You got to be kidding after the fire in Slave Lake where I moved from … hope everyone is safe in Coalhurst.”