NEWS

Wildfires Force 300 People From Homes In Northwest Alberta

07/11/2012 12:39 EDT | Updated 09/10/2012 05:12 EDT
Flickr: avilasal
The province is escalating the fight against an out-of-control wildfire threatening Zama City in northwest Alberta.

"We do have a Type 1 team mobilizing to the site," said Heather Hawkins with Sustainable Resource Development. "They are the most experienced and most well trained fire managers."

The fire is estimated at more than 100,000 hectares, but heavy smoke makes it difficult to be more precise, she said.

Firefighters are holding a fire about 10 kilometres from the oil and gas hamlet of Zama City, about 930 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

About 130 people were evacuated from their homes to hotels and a school in High Level, Alta., late Tuesday night when winds picked up and began pushing the fire south towards the hamlet.

"The high pressure ridge that was sitting over northern Alberta started to break down which means we had some strong winds start to pick up," said SRD spokesperson Rob Harris. "That's what really fanned the fires."

SRD recommended the hamlet evacuate immediately and Mackenzie County agreed to issue a mandatory evacuation order, he said.

Zama resident Janet Hackett said she got a sense around 4 p.m. Tuesday that people would have to leave. The family had their bags packed and ready to go when the evacuation order was issued.

"The town was becoming really, really smoky, and the skies were really red and grey, so we knew that it was getting pretty intense," she said.

The family then drove along a dirt road for two hours to reach High Level.

Hackett's husband, Richard, is Zama's fire chief. He returned to the hamlet Wednesday morning.

Fire started by lightning strike

The fire, burning since a lightning strike on June 21, already had everybody on edge, said county councillor Lisa Wardley.

The fire has been growing gradually to more than 16,000 hectares a week ago, said Wardley, who wondered if the fire should have been fought more agressively earlier.

"It unnerved a lot of people for the last couple of weeks," she said.

The evacuation came with little notice, said the hamlet's chief administrative officer Joulia Whitteton. "Definitely moving people when evening comes has its challenges — late at night considering the condition of the road, dust and smoke."

The RCMP and the fire chief went door to door getting people out, she said.

A second fire, called the Bear Creek fire, about 40 kilometres from Zama City, is also being held, said Harris.

Heavy smoke from a third fire, the Lutose fire, prompted a voluntary evacuation for 164 residents of the Dene Tha First Nation near La Crete, Alta., to High Level.

Firefighters shouldn't be looking to the heavens for help, said CBC meteorologist Cory Edel. Temperatures in northern Alberta will continue to hit 30 degrees until Saturday.

Rain is called for on Sunday, but warm, dry air will move in again.