Alberta wildfires: Mayor of Yellowhead County wants provincial election postponed

The mayor of Yellowhead County is calling on Alberta’s political parties to postpone the provincial election and focus on the wildfires.

“When this fire situation started, this whole entire county was tinder dry,” Wade Williams said Tuesday.

“With this election going on, it took us five days of fighting and arguing just to get a fire and OHV (off-highway vehicle) ban put on in this county.

“Over and above that, it took a few days for the province to declare a state of emergency.”

A province-wide state of emergency was declared Saturday evening.

Click to play video: 'Alberta declares state of emergency as wildfires rage'

Alberta declares state of emergency as wildfires rage

“It is time for all parties running in this upcoming election to band together, get a hold of Elections Alberta and postpone this provincial election,” Williams said.

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“This election is nothing but a distraction at this point when we, Albertans, need every government official to roll up their sleeves and fight for this province before we don’t have a province to come back to.”

Williams said politicians of all stripes have to collaborate and focus on the out-of-control wildfires, especially since high temperatures are in the forecast.

“I’m calling on all Albertans, all mayors and reeves across Alberta to contact your MLAs to help me get this message out,” Williams said.

Some Yellowhead County residents have been out of their homes for eight to 10 days due to wildfires.

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An evacuation order remains in place for parts of the county, including Evansburg, Hansonville, Lobstick Resort and Wildwood. Areas still under evacuation order are east of Range Road 110 (north of Chip Lake) and east of Range Road 101 (south of Chip Lake) and south of Township Road 560 in Yellowhead County.

County officials said Tuesday that they are working on re-entry plans.

Highway 16 by Evansburg was reopened at noon on Tuesday, but there is no access to evacuation zones.

Highway 22 was also reopened, but also without access to evacuation zones.

The county is working on re-entry plans for Evansburg and rural Yellowhead County east, south and north of Wildwood tentatively scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday.

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The county said the re-entry plan for Wildwood, Lobstick Resort and Hansonville is tentatively Thursday or Friday.

Click to play video: 'Alberta announces funding for wildfire evacuees'

Alberta announces funding for wildfire evacuees

Williams said he’s hearing concerns that the funding being offered by the province for wildfire evacuees out of their homes for seven days won’t apply to those in his community because they were allowed back home for one day in the middle before being forced out again.

He said he’s working with the province on this and if the government doesn’t fix this, the county will cover the costs to help residents. Evacuees are being asked to keep all their receipts and to call 1-833-334-4630 if they need help.

The province clarified Tuesday that anyone who’s been forced out for seven days or more total — not consecutive — qualifies for supports.

The county also hired its own helicopter to do some water bucketing.

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Dozens of properties in Yellowhead County have been destroyed by two wildfires burning in the region west of Edmonton.

They are among the 88 wildfires burning across the province, 25 of which are listed as out of control.

“The firefighters in Yellowhead County? Very resilient. Very tired. Very, very tired,” said Albert Bahri, Yellowhead County fire chief, on Monday. “They’re evacuated. We’re losing homes. It’s tough.

“We had a firefighter — structures in his property burned down. He was fighting the fire on the other side of the fire when the fire came from Parkland (County) and went right through his property.”

Bahri said crews have been doing whatever they can to protect people, homes and property by using wet guards, sprinkler protection and by triaging.

“From our perspective, we try to save everything.”

He said when the two wildfires — one that started a week ago Saturday and another that crossed the Pembina River from Parkland County — joined, “there was no way to stop it.”

“It rolled through communities and homes, the bush line that was there. We fought what we could fight and had our sprinkler protection up on what we could sprinkler at the time,” Bahri said.

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“We did save homes. The fire went right over the top of homes and those homes are still there.

“If it gets up into the trees, they’re dry as well. It just takes off. We had Crown fires that were 200 feet in the air that were rolling over the top of homes. Our firefighters were at risk the entire time.”

Bahri said the wildfire was right next to the community of Wildwood.

“We set up a sprinkler protection line, a wet line, a dozer guard to the east side of Wildwood and the fire came up very close to that. With the wind change, it sort of skirted around that to the north, headed out further to the west but very close to the community.

“We’re getting ember drop and ash in the community itself.”

Bahri estimates there are about 100 residences in wildwood and they’re all at risk, he said. But that’s not Yellowhead County’s only concern.

“It’s Shining Bank, it’s Wildwood, Lobstick, Hansonville, Reno Road, south of Highway 16, north of Highway 16, Highway 22, all the residents that are in that affected zone. We’re worried about all of them and their homes and their properties.”

An evacuation order remains in place for the far eastern and southern sections of Yellowhead County, including the hamlets of Evansburg and Wildwood (east of Range Road 110, north of Chip Lake, and east of Range Road 101, south of Chip Lake, and south of Township Road 560 in Yellowhead County.)

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For a complete list of evacuation orders, visit Alberta Emergency Alerts. 

Despite the evacuation order, some people chose to stay behind.

“This is an agricultural area. Some people have over 650 head of cattle calving. We can’t relocate these animals,” Samantha Callioux told Global News on Monday.

“Once we truly realized that we were left alone… we had to fend for ourselves and we have been.”

Challioux lives and works at Go Hard Ranch, about 15 minutes northwest of the hamlet of Wildwood. The ranch has custom-pasture cattle as well as a wedding venue and guest ranch.

“I tried to support the neighbours, other neighbours continued to come together. We really recognized that we were majorly left to literally burn and struggle on our own.”

Callioux said in the absence of fire help, she and her father have been driving water trucks with the neighbours, wetting down properties and trying to stop the fire from encroaching on homes and properties. They’ve also been filling up water tanks at a pond to make sure the cattle have water.

She said residents have been using tractors to create fire guards for more than a week.

“These are 18-year-old kids … there are three tractors that have been going non-stop, spending money out of their own pockets. It’s just been absolutely incredible.”

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The wildfire worsened on Saturday, Callioux said, spreading on the north entrance to Wildwood.

“There was water bombers right there trying to mitigate the losses … We really needed more water north of Wildwood… They weren’t going any further north.

“There was nothing. If we hadn’t helped ourselves, I have no idea where the fire would have ended up being.”

She put out a call for help on Facebook.

“We had so many rural people show up with water tanks to help us because there was absolutely no resources helping us north of Wildwood,” she said.

“We had hundreds of people show up and it was absolutely awe inspiring, even though it was horrific. We had people in the field stomping out fire with their feet, water backpacks, shovels, rakes, any means necessary trying to mitigate our losses, trying to save as many houses as possible.”

Callioux understand the county’s fire services are spread thin, but she wonders if things could have been handled better or if more help could have been provided.

“As the week progressed, we recognized we really weren’t getting any support, there was not near the fire help that we needed — we only had one day of water bombers coming,” she said.

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“We also recognized there’s wildfires all across Alberta at the moment. But right here we have literally been told that we are not a priority.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire evacuees to get financial aid, military to help'

Alberta wildfire evacuees to get financial aid, military to help

Williams said: “When things slow down and we get a chance to debrief, we will have a chance to ask the tough questions.

“Our crews have been going day and night for 10 days now and are extremely tired.”

Over the weekend, Williams said he and Kevin Zahara, mayor of Edson, have “been on the phone non-stop to government officials, our MLAs, with the RMA, the EMA (emergency management agency) … to try to get some more help and to get this state of emergency declared.”

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He said the county has had 13 wildfires burning in its communities, a situation that has been very hard to manage.

“Do we feel like we were left a little bit high and dry? Yes, we certainly do, and residents certainly do,” Williams said.

A rural property near Wildwood in Yellowhead County, Alta., May 7, 2023. Global News

Other Yellowhead County residents are frustrated with how things were handled.

“I came up north of town here to just check out fires and I found a hot spot,” Jaci Pozdzik said on Sunday.

“I went to the fire hall found a big strong safety guy and told him about it … I went back to town and found an RCMP (officer), showed them where the fire was. They told me it wasn’t a priority.

“I know there’s fires all over the place but it’s right here. It’s a half mile out of town. There was full water trucks everywhere … I don’t know what to say. I don’t understand why.

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“I was told I had to get out of town,” Pozdzik said. “It was horrible. All you could do was watch.”

Yellowhead County officials addressed the frustrations around fire resources on Tuesday, explaining that those fire trucks were from firefighters who came in from other areas to help the fight in Yellowhead County. The firefighters themselves were on the ground fighting the fires but the trucks and the equipment that were in the fire station parking lot weren’t useful for that job.

Officials said the resources are being used as best as possible.

Wildfire damage near Shining Bank, in Yellowhead County, Alta., on May 8, 2023. Tim Lee / Global News

Denise Uelind, a resident of Yellowhead County, lost her home.

“We have lost (everything). I have got a bundle of blankets, a bag of clothes each but all my wedding photos, all my antiques, my memorabilia, all of it is gone.

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“It’s hard,” Uelind said. “I want answers … Why? How?

“But I want to be home. I have to start a cleanup. I have to plan my future … so it’s frustrating.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires force nearly 30,000 residents to flee'

Alberta wildfires force nearly 30,000 residents to flee

“We’ve never had this much fire in Yellowhead County,” Bahri said. “Look at the size of the fire and how fast it moved. It’s unprecedented in this county.”

He said county firefighters have been working for 10 days straight and “a lot of them are beat.”

“We’ve maxed out. The resources we asked for, we were provided with. We didn’t ask for more because we understand the rest of the province is burning.”

Click to play video: '‘We are helping ourselves’: Alberta rancher, union raise concerns about wildfire resources'

‘We are helping ourselves’: Alberta rancher, union raise concerns about wildfire resources

With that in mind, the fire chief understands why some people decided to stay and try to protect their homes and farms.

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“I support those residents 100 per cent,” Bahri said.

“The problem for the fire service that we have is we’re trying to protect those people, plus were trying to protect their property, and we’re trying to protect our firefighters.”

If people stay, firefighters have to organize everyone.

“They did fantastic work. The work they did was spectacular, whether it was in Shining Bank or in Wildwood or north of Wildwood, those residents were great.

“They didn’t evacuate. They were asked to evacuate, they stayed to protect their property and that’s a choice they made and I support that,” Bahri said.

“Our firefighters are working to do that as well. It’s about coordination, it’s about knowledge, and now we have to make sure we keep them safe as well.

“You do what you have to do to keep your community safe and that’s what they did.”

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