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Supporting Our Neighbours in their Time of Need: Stories of the 2023 Wildfires

In 2023, wildfire severely impacted residents across Canada. In Alberta alone, an estimated 38,000 people were evacuated starting in early spring and not ending until fall. For many Northern Albertans, the effects were inescapable.

Displaced from their homes and forced to leave nearly everything behind, thousands of evacuees flocked to neighbouring communities for help and support. Safe havens were set up and utilized all summer long by evacuees and fire fighters from Alberta, Australia and South Africa.

When disaster struck, and people were in need, our people and our communities came together. Countless volunteers, fire crews, business owners, Emergency Social Services teams and local politicians, worked tirelessly to help. These are some of their stories:

Pictured L to R: Josh Knelsen, Kayla Wardley, Jared Snyder, Lisa Wardley and Shawn Hiltz

Josh Knelsen, Mackenzie County Reeve

When the evacuation of Fox Lake commenced in early May, I had no idea the severity of the impending threat, nor the extensive devastation it would do.

Kayla Wardley, Town of High Level Emergency Social Services Coordinator and Community Development Manager

On May 4, our evacuation centre in High Level welcomed 456 people from the community of Fox Lake. Working in the centre was a learning experience for a lot of us, and it felt surreal. We hadn’t experienced anything on this scale. From then until September 29, we ran a 24-hour evacuation centre that welcomed over 3,600 registrants.

Jared Snyder, Co-owner of Tim Hortons, High Level

When the fires first began and evacuees started arriving in High Level, I started taking our large coffee thermoses to the evacuation centres every day. The Best Western Mirage Hotel, the sports complex and the High Level Native Friendship Centre were the main places I visited.

Kayla Wardley Staff members and I were busy. At any given time, we were registering new people, doing donations intake, running schedules, making food orders, arranging taxi rides, organizing healthcare, making grocery store runs, washing and drying clothes and hosting events for the evacuees. We did a little bit of everything, and we really tried to continue with our regular community events and programming to keep a sense of normalcy while the fires continued to spread across the region.

Josh Knelsen My past experiences working on wildfire fronts before getting involved in municipal governance has granted me insights into the dangers and threats associated with wildfires. During the initial stages of the fire, my efforts centred on facilitating connections. I liaised with decision-makers, ensuring the flow of necessary resources—ranging from boats and barges for river crossings to the establishment of rapidly deployable camps capable of accommodating numerous individuals in a short amount of time.

Kayla Wardley In High Level, we received people from 12 different communities. Figuring out what was needed from each community was a struggle at first, but we managed to learn on the fly. Many people were bused here or flown in, so we had to figure out transportation for them once they arrived. It was truly a learning experience for us all.

Josh Knelsen The magnitude of the blaze, which surpassed 2.2 million hectares—nearly five times the annual average, left us all speechless, especially after the massive Chuckegg fire in 2019, which covered just over 820,000 acres. The forestry industry, which provides a significant source of employment for our northern communities cannot sustain continued seasons of such devastation.

Jared Snyder I learned a lot from our 2019 Chuckegg fire experience and knew the best way for us to help was to take coffee to these evacuation centres. Evacuees and the folks working at the centres can be stressed out and having coffee available is one less thing for them to worry about. It was rewarding to help repay the favour because in 2019 our community was evacuated to some of the places we were now hosting.

Josh Knelsen As days passed, the demand for boots on the ground became apparent. I devoted a significant part of the summer to operate various machines as required. Witnessing the charred homes, still emitting smoke each day, was heart-wrenching. Families stripped of everything, including cherished mementos, were forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs while navigating to cross the Peace River by boat for safety. It was unimaginable.

Shawn Hiltz, Zama City Fire Chief

In early June, the Zama City Fire Department started focusing on structural protections. We set them up on all the buildings in Zama City, both residential and commercial. Our role every morning was to test if everything was running precisely. We mostly worked on fire smarting, which involved removing extra debris and clearing trees around town.

Josh Knelsen The smoke often enveloped us, obscuring visibility within a mere 10 feet. It made breathing a challenge and caused eye irritation beyond imagination. The heightened drought codes resulted in sporadic spot fires being ignited by drifting embers, which was a constant danger and something to always be aware of.

Kayla Wardley As more evacuees began to show up, we had to figure out things such as medications and prescriptions for seniors, and we had to bring in prenatal nurses for pregnant women. We ended up creating a nursing area in our locker rooms and had nurses there every single day doing two-hour stints, so everyone had a chance to seek medication attention if they needed it.

Shawn Hiltz When the large fire near Rainbow Lake started, it knocked out our power for at least a week. Not long after, there was another fire south of High Level that left us without power again for a week. Thankfully, we had other fire crews here from across Alberta, as well as about 60 members from South Africa, who were on the front line of the fires. We also had a great crew from Australia who helped with the management side of things. Despite having so many different teams, it was very well organized each day. We all knew where to go and what to do.

Lisa Wardley, Mackenzie County Councillor

In Zama, we were without power for two weeks due to the Rainbow Lake and Basset fires. The Kananaskis Fire Department was here during structural protection, and we hosted Australian and South African fire fighters as well.

Shawn Hiltz The Beach Road Fire started 10 km northwest of Zama City and we were all put on evacuation notice for a few days. We had fire structure crews come into the community and put-up fire protection on residential homes and vital operating structures. Heavy equipment, aircrafts and ground crews worked hard to keep this fire from reaching our community.

Josh Knelsen While we can’t entirely avert natural disasters, there are proactive measures to safeguard our homes, communities and farms against wildfire threats. Implementing vigilant housekeeping practices like cleaning eavestroughs and substituting combustible materials like asphalt shingles and vinyl siding with fire-resistant alternatives—such as tin, hardy blank brick or non-combustible materials—is critical, especially for those residing in forested areas.

Lisa Wardley We eventually had a shelter in place in Zama with sprinklers ready on roofs and buildings.

Josh Knelsen Equipping ourselves with readily accessible sprinkler systems for emergency activation is another vital precautionary step that we can utilize if the need should arise.

Jared Snyder As the evacuations continued, we donated things like pallets of water, reusable bags—to be used at donation centres for clothes—and pallets of food from Tims such as canned chili and boxes of granola bars. Tim Hortons also sent us a coffee truck to go to evacuation centres throughout the region. Since it was summer, we decided to set up a lemonade and donut stand beside the trucks at each location. We went to evacuation centres in Paddle Prairie, High Level, Bushe River, Fort Vermilion and La Crete. We would spend a few hours at each location until we ran out of supplies.

Shawn Hiltz When Yellowknife was evacuated, we had evacuees stay at the campground in Zama City. It was a busy summer for our small community, but we didn’t mind. I look after the campground here and accommodated about 100 people. Most had their own campers. Evacuees were at the campground for close to three weeks.

Lisa Wardley We hosted Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith evacuees in our local campground as well as at our cabins and at the Noralta Inn.

Jared Snyder The evacuees and residents we saw were always very grateful. I feel like it was a much-needed break from the constant worry and uncertainly that goes with being evacuated. The kids really loved it. A lot of them helped serve lemonade and donuts.

Pictured L to R: Tanya Bell, Robbie Schofield and Meghan Macleod

Tanya Bell, Peace River Emergency Social Services & Director of Community Services

The Baytex Energy Centre was the location of the Town of Peace River’s reception centre. We hosted evacuees from the Northwest Territories fires for six weeks and provided supports to over 950 individuals.

Robbie Schofield, Peace River Emergency Social Services and Co-manager of the reception centre

We were activated on a Sunday afternoon when we were all at home enjoying the weekend. When we received the call, all of us dropped what we were doing to put our emergency plan into place. The first weeks were hectic—booking hotel rooms, providing food services and reassuring evacuees they weren’t on their own. We provided a listening ear.

Tanya Bell Our Community Services Department staff work as a team, using their extensive experience and training to provide effective and compassionate assistance to evacuees. Our staff are assigned designated roles under Emergency Social Services (ESS) and are educated in the Incident Command System and specialized ESS training. We had over 50 individual staff and volunteers, and they were all exceptional in their roles and support to their team.

The Peace River Emergency Social Services Team

Robbie Schofield Things evolved quickly, and we had to adapt as more communities evacuated and unexpected issues arose. Our team went home exhausted many nights, but everyone was there for the next shift ready to do it all again. All of us set aside our regular jobs to help, and we had staff members assisting from all our departments. None of the work we did would have been possible without our exceptional, dedicated team.

Tanya Bell This is the third major activation for the Town of Peace River Emergency Social Services. Previous activations included the Chuckegg Wildfire evacuation in 2019—when we registered over 900 people during a four-week period—and the Slave Lake fire of 2011—when we provided supports for over 600 individuals during a two-week period. It is a significant task to feed, house and provide supports to hundreds at one time. Our staff’s training and pre-planning were vital to our efficiency. Each event has also provided an opportunity to learn and improve.

Meghan Macleod, Peace River Emergency Social Services and Co-manager of the reception centre

The graciousness and gratitude of the evacuees really made an impact on me. People were able to maintain kindness during potentially one of the most stressful times in their lives. We had several families staying in our community that had lost their homes, and they still came into the evacuation centre with smiles on their faces and nothing but respect and warmth toward evacuation centre staff. The strength and resiliency shown was nothing short of remarkable.

By Dani Wearden | Photography Submitted

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