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Brazeau County evacuation order expanded; Drayton Valley hospital emptied, too, because of fire risk

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 A Wildwood, Alta., resident whose community was evacuated because of a fire on Monday had been waiting the situation out in Drayton Valley – that is, until, that community was evacuated Thursday night, too. 

Thousands of people in Drayton Valley and the surrounding area were told to immediately leave the town at 11:09 p.m. because of an out-of-control wildfire.

RCMP walked door to door to confirm residents knew about the alert. 

They were given 30 minutes, Wildwood resident Deborah Deep told CTV News Edmonton on Friday. 

"We had it all packed up because we were watching the fires and the clouds and the smoke and everything else," Deep recalled during an interview in Spruce Grove Friday morning. "So then we got the [order] and we had the cage in the back already for the dogs and stuff like that."

Friday morning, the 1,500-hectare wildfire was still classified as out of control and had moved to inside the valley of the North Saskatchewan River, seven kilometres from the south edge of Drayton Valley. 

"It's scary," added a crying Drayton Valley resident, Lynda Biczko. "I just hope everybody left."

Drayton Valley and Brazeau County residents leave their homes after an evacuation was ordered late May 4, 2023, because of a wildfire.

As of Friday evening, the evacuation order applied to an expanded area in Brazeau County outside of Drayton Valley. In addition to all town residents, everyone living between Township Roads 482 and 494 and between the river west to Range Road 90 was ordered to leave.

As well, everyone from Range Road 90 to Range Road 100, between Township Road 480 north to Highway 621 was told to prepare for a possible evacuation. That order includes the Hamlet of Cynthia. 

The most current and detailed information about evacuations and wildfire alerts is available on Alberta's emergency alerting system.

Evacuees were directed to take Highway 22 north to Highway 624 to Tomahawk, then head to Stony Plain and then Edmonton, where an evacuation centre is set up. Those who needed help leaving Drayton Valley could call 780-542-7777.

"Bring important documents, medication, food, water and supplies for at least 3 days. Take pets with you," residents were told. 

As well, Alberta Health Services transferred all 79 Drayton Valley Hospital and Care Centre patients and residents to central and Edmonton zones. Family helped in many cases and where possible, staff have accompanied their patients to ensure care continuity, AHS said. 

Three helicopters, air tankers, and 26 firefighters from the province were assisting Brazeau County. 

Steve Blatch, another Drayton Valley resident, told CTV News Edmonton he was "anxious about what's going to happen and what we are going back to."  

No structures had been damaged as of Friday morning, according to Alberta Wildfire. 

Drayton Valley has a population of about 7,000 people and is located about 95 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

Smoke billows over Drayton Valley, Alta., on May 5, 2023, as a wildfire encroaches on the town.

EVACUATION CENTRE SET UP AT EXPO

By 11:30 a.m. Friday, 142 evacuees had registered at the Edmonton Expo Centre, a City of Edmonton official estimated. 

"A lot of them are trying to catch up on a lot of needed sleep. They are getting fed and watered and their pets are being looked after by Edmonton's Animal Care and Control," Gerry Clarke, the coordinator for the Emergency Support Response Team (ESRT), told reporters. 

He says the city was notified at 4 a.m. it would need to activate its emergency operations and reception centre, like it did in 2016 to host thousands of Fort McMurray residents. 

"That was kind of learn on the fly and we called in a lot of resources and we did a great job in managing that situation. Over the past seven years – as of three days ago, which was the anniversary of the Wood Buffalo fire – we've had a chance to build the emergency support response team that the City of Edmonton has," Clarke said. 

"[The evacuees] are going to be welcomed with open arms. They're going to be listened to. People are going to be very compassionate about what they've gone through and we're going to be able to do the best we can to assist them in getting some normalcy back in their life."

The city has 2,500 cot kits – consisting of the bed, pillow, blanket, clothing and a hygiene kit – available. 

At the Expo Centre, evacuees can also access mental health support or help meeting urgent medical needs. 

Over the day and weekend, more services will be available. Clarke said his teams are getting organized to provide animal walks, children's play and TVs to watch the daily provincial wildfire updates. 

'WE'RE IN GOOD HANDS' 

Barricades have been set up around Drayton Valley. 

"Nobody can go in and we're encouraging everybody to evacuate as soon as possible as the fires are, of course, still going on, and just to get to safety and get to the Expo Centre,"  Drayton Valley mayor Nancy Dodds said during an 8:30 a.m. interview. 

A road block stands on Highway 39, 18 kilometres east of Drayton Valley, Alta., after the town was evacuated late in the evening of May 4, 2023, because of a wildfire.

She was among the thousands who fled Drayton Valley overnight, leaving with family and pets. 

Dodds told CTV News Edmonton she'd only had about an hour of sleep between ensuring neighbours left town safely and coordinating the evacuation with other municipalities and levels of government. 

Traffic on the evacuation route was bumper to bumper. 

"I know that it did take some time for everybody to get out," Dodds said. 

"Everybody was slow and being patient and it just seemed that, when I was leaving, it just seemed like it was very well organized and people were just being mindful of one another."

She did not confirm all Drayton Valley residents had left.

ALERT SYSTEM DEFENDED

During the provincial wildfire news conference, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) applauded the alerting system used in Drayton Valley Thursday night and confirmed it uses local police in smaller communities to help notify residents. 

"It could have been much worse. It could always be much better. Could we do better? Maybe," Stephen Lacroix, AEMA managing director, commented. 

"These things are always happening at the wrong time of day under dire circumstances with people somewhat traumatized… Some frustrations, certainly. Everybody's out. Everybody's alive. Nobody's injured." 

Dodds added, "I don't think you can ever really be prepared. 

"You tell yourself that you will and I think that our team is doing the best job and we have some amazing people out there and we have supports out there from all around areas and resources coming in, so I think we're in good hands."

At 10:30 a.m. Friday, there were 78 active wildfires in the province, according to the government. 

The fire in Drayton Valley is believed to be caused by human activity. 

This is a developing news story. Information will be updated as it becomes available. 

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