'Nothing short of heroic': Firefighters recount battle against Chuckegg Fire
Staring up at a 20-foot swirling fire tornado, Jenna Rushton-Stevens had one thought: “That’s the angriest fire I’ve ever seen.”
Over Tuesday night, the Chuckegg Fire in northwestern Alberta had almost doubled in size, surpassing 200,000 hectares. Throughout Wednesday, the conditions worsened and the blaze bore down on the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement, south of High Level.
That afternoon, Rushton-Stevens and another volunteer, Shane Dempster, were called to help the firefighting effort along Highway 35.
“We got there and it wasn’t five minutes until my idea of what was happening that day changed,” Rushton-Stevens recalled.
Around her, ash fell in clumps larger than her hands.
“There’s birds chirping, it was quiet. But not many kilometers down the road was black and angry fire,” Dempster added.
“There’s no way to stop a fire of that magnitude. Forestry can’t stop it, we can’t stop it. Our focus just came to try and protect people’s homes.”
But before they could join the crews working from inside the community of Paddle Prairie, Chuckegg Fire crossed the highway, effectively cutting off road access.
Over the radio, High Level Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt could hear the Paddle Prairie firefighters move from one home to the next, systematically sprinkling what they could in preparation.
“We thought we’ll fly people down and add to the trucks,” Schmidt told CTV News.
“We couldn’t get helicopter in. So they were on their own.”
More than a dozen homes were burned to the ground when the fire did eventually breach Paddle Prairie—but the crews and the majority of the community were unharmed.
“Thirty people saved the other 90 homes plus,” Schmidt said.
“Staying there and trying to defend that is nothing short of heroic.”
Nonetheless, he called the losses “a devastating blow” for his team.
Dempster echoed the sentiment: “Driving through there, it was hard. It was hard to watch, hard to see. People lost their homes, and we couldn’t—we tried—we couldn’t save everyone’s homes.
‘It’s been a long week and half’
Evacuations have made High Level and many surrounding communities momentary ghost towns. The only movement takes place at the fire command centre, which thrums round the clock.
“It’s been a long week and half, two weeks. I haven’t seen my wife or two kids in a week-and-a-half and I’m tired. I think everyone here is tired,” Dempster told CTV News.
He rejoined the fire department specifically to help his community.
“I got my family on the road with some friends, made sure they were safe, and then I came right here and went to Rodney and said, ‘What can I do? Put me on a team.’”
But two weeks later, he has found it’s hard not to personalize the destruction.
“I hope when the dust settles they’re proud of us, and proud of our fight. I just wish we could’ve saved everyone’s homes.”
The wildfire was measured Saturday at more than 280,000 hectares, one of the province’s largest ever recorded. And Paddle Prairie remains a battleground, with officials forecasting erratic winds.
But, the fire chief is as unwavering as Chuckegg Fire.
“We’re still fighting and doing the best we can. That’s all we can tell them,” Schmidt said.
“We’re doing the best we can.”
More communities told to prepare for evacuation
More residents are preparing to leave in case an evacuation alert is upgraded to an order.
Just after 2 p.m., an evacuation alert was issued for two areas in Mackenzie County:
- North of Peace River to Township Road 1110, west of Range Road 120 and east of Highway 35 south of High Level
- South of Peace River to Township Road 1040, west of Range Road 120 and east of Steep Hill Creek
Authorities recommend residents get vehicles, important documents and identification, and personal items like prescriptions ready, and make plans for pets and livestock.
About 12,000 additional residents are under an evacuation alert.
The B.C. government announced Saturday evening it would be sending an additional 137 personnel—including firefighters and an incident management team—to Alberta on June 3 and 4 to help with the wildfire situation.
Last week, it deployed 267 firefighting workers to Alberta. Those crews will finish their 19 days of deployment and return home between June 6 and 8.
With files from Timm Bruch