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Fox Lake evacuees settling in High Level area as wildfire remains out of control

Fox Lake evacuees are settling in High Level and other nearby communities as firefighters work around the clock to combat the wildfire that has already claimed more than 20 homes in the northern Alberta community.

Evacuations began Wednesday night for the community of 3,600, as the Paskwa wildfire encroached on the community. The last of the residents were taken to safety Friday.

Jena Clarke, director of community services in High Level, said Fox Lake residents have been coming to High Level in waves starting late Wednesday night.

"We were told on Wednesday about 6 o'clock that we should start to get prepared, so me and my team started setting up the reception centre at the arena," Clarke said. "They started rolling in between 12:30 and 1, from there we just getting people in until the morning."

Clarke said High Level is a central evacuation hub for the region. In 20 years, the town has helped with 13 different evacuations. It seems like every summer there is at least one community needing a space to stay, she added.

"It used to be just a lot of fires, now we've seen some floods and stuff like that," Clarke said, adding that includes a previous Fox Lake evacuation around 14 years ago.

"Not of this size," she added. "The difference between this one and other ones for me personally doing it, is that we needed people to stay in the arena because we didn't have enough space in hotels."

Clarke said, with the number of evacuees, some people are having to stay in temporary accommodations at the High Level Arena and the Native Friendship Centre.

Others are spread throughout the region, she added, staying with friends or family or in the neighbouring communities of Fort Vermillion and Le Crête.

In High Level, evacuees can register with the Little Red River Cree Nation at the Best Western Plus Mirage Hotel and Resort or with the Town of High Level at the arena.

As of Friday afternoon, 1,800 people had registered at reception centres in High Level.

The community is ready to help, and Clarke said they will be there for as long as they're needed. In addition to shelter and other necessities, the town is working with Alberta Health Services to ensure evacuees have medical and mental health services.

"I think we have a really amazing community that just wants to help," she said. "We've gotten calls for donations of water, food, bedding, pillows, like everything that you could need.

"People have been offering it up to us, so it's been amazing to see that part of it."

A donation collection line for Fox Lake residents has been set up through the High Level Native Friendship Centre at 780-926-3355.

Clarke said diapers, toiletries and food are the most needed items.

Evacuees in High Level looking for information can go to one of the reception centres or call the evacuation phone line at 1-888-201-3053. Updates are also being posted to the Little Red River Cree Nation Facebook page. 


Chief Conroy Sewepagaham of the Little Red River Cree Nation posted an update to the First Nation's Facebook page Friday, saying the fire had grown significantly over the day.

Officials report the fire at 4,400 hectares, but the size of the fire and the smoke are making it hard to know for sure.

In addition to the homes lost, the local RCMP detachment and the Northern Store were destroyed Thursday. In the update, Sewepagaham said no more structures appear to have been lost since.

The fire, one of three burning in the High Level area, remains out of control at this time, making it difficult for officials to gauge the full damage or size of the fire. 

Stephen Lacroix, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said he commends local authorities for acting quickly to get people out despite challenges in evacuating the remote community.

"They took the right steps at the right time," Lacroix said. "You need to understand the level of complexity involved in evacuating Fox Lake with a barge, a dirt road, a cut line to get to a paved road and then head on down to High Level and Fort Vermillion.

"So, extremely complex in a volatile situation."

Wildfire Alberta assisted with evacuations, taking 115 residents by helicopter.

Christie Tucker, Alberta Wildfire's information unit manager, said Friday that 36 firefighters, three helicopters, and air tankers and heavy equipment are continuing to work in Fox Lake to get the fire under control.

"We were able to conduct nighttime operations overnight using night-vision technology, which allows us to fight wildfires around the clock," Tucker said.

Fox Lake is one of three communities that make up the Little Red River Cree Nation, located around 750 kilometres north of Edmonton. Top Stories

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