High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer says it is not a question of whether or not northern Alberta residents will be able to return home, but when.

McAteer told CTV News on Sunday she was optimistic fire guards surrounding the community would prove successful if a 105,200-hectare fire began to move towards the town of High Level, as officials expect it might with a change in wind direction forecasted for Sunday.  

“I woke up this morning knowing we’re as prepared as we’ll ever be, and today will be the test, because today is the day that the winds (will) shift,” McAteer said.

“This will be one of the tests, and one of the triggers that gets the community back here.”

About 5,000 residents from High Level and the Dene Tha’ First Nation communities of Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh are currently under an evacuation order.

However, the mayor said she had full confidence in the ability of frontline crews to protect the community.

“I haven’t held my breath for three days because we are that prepared. I even said the only thing I have ready to go is my 19-year-old cat. I never packed a bag. I’m very optimistic.”

Scott Elliott, incident commander under Unified Command, said he was expecting the wind to pick up throughout Sunday, increasing the potential of the fire to move in a northern and north-eastern direction.

The conditions mean there is increased risk for “extreme fire behaviour” throughout the day, like high rates of fire spread, large flame lengths, and high intensity fires.

Elliott couldn't say what chance there was fire would reach the community: “I hate to say anything is possible, but we are ready for it.” 

Nearly 600 wildland and structural firefighters, as well as workers behind 28 helicopters, eight air tankers, and dozens of pieces of heavy equipment, have been dedicated to the blaze. 

"People are engaged and people are in a high state of readiness," Elliott said. "There is concern, but I think there’s also confidence in the preparations that we put in place, and the plan that we put in place."

He added the safety of crews was a top priority alongside keeping High Level properties safe.

According to Elliott, Sunday's "test" of the High Level's fire preparations would help determine how long the evacuation order lasts. 

McAteer said essential services like grocers and the hospital would need to be operational again before residents could go home.

An estimated 4,300 evacuees have registered at centres in Slave Lake, High Prairie, Grande Prairie, La Crete, Peace River, Fort Vermilion and In K'atl' Odeeche First Nation. 

Those who have been evacuated from the area were able to apply for emergency funding from the provincial government starting Sunday at 12 p.m.

Two highway closures remain in effect: 

  • Highway 35, south of High Level. Motorists can detour the area via Highway 697 and La Crete Ferry. 
  • Highway 58, from High Level to about 90 kilometres from the Range Road 45A junction. 

A special air quality statement was also issued for the High Level, Peace River, Grande Prairie and Wabasca regions. Residents were warned of poor air quality and reduced visibility in some areas.