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Wildfire evacuations: What to know in case you have to leave your home

Multiple communities have been subject to evacuation orders as intense wildfires continue to spread across western Canada.

Experts are expecting this summer’s wildfire season to be particularly severe, which is why officials and emergency organizations are urging Canadians to prepare in case they are ordered to leave their homes.

Hot, dry weather sparked massive wildfires last week in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

About 6,600 residents in Alberta’s Fort McMurray were forced to evacuate their homes again Tuesday due to an out-of-control wildfire.

Fort Nelson, B.C., also issued an evacuation order Friday, affecting about 4,700 residents.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a trip to B.C. last week that Canada needs to be more prepared and coordinated for wildfires this year as global temperatures continue to warm.

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“We know from the forecasts that in western and northern Canada … it is likely to be a very bad forest fire season,” he said. “People are worried what the summer might bring.”

Many Canadians will likely be subject to an emergency evacuation order or alert for the first time this summer. Here’s what you need to know before it happens.

Tips for pre-evacuation preparedness

Thousands of Canadians have already been subject to evacuation orders and alerts so far this spring.

Jack Rozdilsky, an associate professor of emergency and disaster management at York University, says it’s important to know the difference between the two terms.

An evacuation order, he says, requires residents to leave their homes immediately to avoid the high risk of a fire. An alert means a threat is “potentially impending” and residents should be ready to leave on short notice, but there is a bit more flexibility in terms of timing.

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Click to play video: 'Concerns over Canadian wildfires after record year in 2023'

Concerns over Canadian wildfires after record year in 2023

While alerts and orders are different in terms of action taken in the moment, Rozdilsky describes them both as having a three-part “cycle”: before the evacuation, during and after.

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Rozdilsky says the first step in the preparation process for an evacuation is to be familiar with how you will receive essential information. That could be regularly keeping up with your local news channels and radio, and following emergency organizations on social media for alerts.

Next, Rozdilsky urges everyone to have an evacuation plan in place.

“Consider before potentially evacuating where you are going to go, how you are going to get there, what you would be bringing with you during an evacuation, and also who you would contact,” he told Global News.

Rozdilsky says it’s important to inform others outside of your community that you are evacuating so they can keep track of you and provide assistance if needed.

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You can keep track of your plan by creating a checklist ahead of time, he says.

Part of the checklist includes knowing how to dress for an evacuation, which involves clothing and gear that would protect you from embers and flames. Guidance from the government of Manitoba advices people “dress properly to reduce risk of burn injuries (long pants, a wool or cotton shirt, sturdy footwear).”

Items you’ll want to have close to you include a flashlight to see through heavy smoke and water for hydration. Also have basic belongings on hand such as car keys, wallets, medications, cell phones and a spare battery for communication devices.

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If you’re driving, an important item on the checklist is ensuring your tank is at least half full before departing. Guidance from the federal government advises anyone driving during a wildfire to “stay at least 10 metres away from downed power lines to avoid electrocution. Do not drive through areas that have downed power lines.”

“Do not attempt to drive through a wildfire unless directed by emergency officials,” the guidance warns, and “always follow official evacuation routes.”

Another essential part of preparing for an evacuation is by having an emergency kit ready to go, officials from all jurisdictions advise.

What you pack varies by household and everyone’s needs, including pets, but Rozdilsky suggests packing only one backpack for a day or two that is ready to go well in advance of an evacuation.

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Click to play video: 'Experts warn about consequences of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke'

Experts warn about consequences of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke

You’ve officially been ordered to evacuate. Now what?

The specific guidelines for evacuation orders and alerts are different for every province and territory, but Canadians can have the same general expectations across the country.

Having an idea of where you are going to go once the order or alert is made is important, which may include making arrangements to stay with family or friends. Another option is staying at a hotel.

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If those are not available to you, most regions also have public evacuation centres provided for emergencies. According to B.C.’s online emergency preparedness resource, these shelters are typically in schools or community centres.

You can connect with your province’s emergency management agency to find your nearest shelter.

Trying to stay calm is also crucial.

“What one should not do during a wildfire evacuation is to panic. Stress and anxiety could actually make it harder for you to make good decisions in the situation of a fire,” Rozdilsky said.

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What happens once the evacuation order or alert is lifted?

If you have been evacuated due to a wildfire, guidance from the Canadian Red Cross says it’s important not to return to your home until you have received clearance from emergency officials.

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“Use caution when entering burned areas because there may still be hazards, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning,” the guidance notes.

“Ensure your food and water is safe. Discard any food that may have been exposed to heat, smoke or soot and do not use water that may be contaminated. Take an inventory and photos of ruined furniture, appliances, books, etc. for insurance purposes and keep all receipts related to living expenses, repairs, etc.”

Wearing protective gear like boots, safety glasses and rubber gloves can help while cleaning up, and “household items often take several cleanings to be rid of smoke odours, soot and stains.”

“Contact your local government office for help in finding temporary housing if you cannot stay in your home due to fire damage,” the Canadian Red Cross advice says. “Check with local authorities to see if you are eligible for disaster financial assistance.”

The Canadian Red Cross also urges people to be aware of the stress and social impacts of natural disasters.

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