Evacuations on Old Smith Highway

Pearl Lorentzen

Lakeside Leader

On May 18 at 3:40 p.m., the M.D. of Lesser Slave River ordered the evacuation of people living on the Old Smith Highway between the road west of the Smith Bridge and Range Road 45 (Tollenaars Bridge). As of May 19 at 3 p.m. (the publishing deadline because of the long weekend), they were still evacuated. On May 17 at 9:50 p.m., these people were on four-hour and then one-hour evacuation alert.

Starting on May 18, Mitsue Industrial Park was on four-hour evacuation alert. Also, starting on May 19 at 10:40 a.m., all of Smith, Hondo, Fawcett Lake Resort, Broken Paddle, and all residents living in between were on four-hour evacuation alert.

As of publishing, these alerts were still active. For more recent information, go to alberta.ca/alberta-emergency-alert.aspx or download the Alberta Emergency Alert app and allow it to track your location.

These evacuations were because of three wildfires started on May 16 near the railway tracks west of Smith.

Officially, the cause was under investigation; however, sparks from a train are one possible cause. This was the assumption at the May 17 M.D. of Lesser Slave River meeting.

At that meeting, Reeve Kerik said years ago, CN had agreed to run a speeder down the line after trains had passed, in the high fire hazard season, to spot and deal with fires caused by trains. He isn’t sure, he said, but he thinks it’s not happening anymore.

“CN has to take some responsibility,” Kerik said. “They don’t do vegetation management. They’re starting fires we can’t get to.”

CN employees were helping wildfire fighters fight the fires, said a May 17 Lac La Biche Area Wildfire Update.

Smith and Hondo are in the Lac La Biche Forest Area. The May 16 wildfires started five km west of Smith across the Athabasca River in the Slave Lake Forest Area. These fires west of Smith are called Slave Lake Wildfire (SWF) 085, 086, and 087. They are in a line following the train tracks between Hwy. 2 and the Old Smith Hwy. SWF085 is closest to Smith and SWF087 is furthest west, originally about 30 km from Slave Lake.

By May 19 at 3 p.m., SWF085 was four km northwest of Smith. SWF087 was 27 km east of Slave Lake, with SWF086 in between.

These three wildfires started out between two and nine ha. By May 19 at 3 p.m., SWF085 grew to 3,680 ha, SWF086 was 10 ha, and SWF087 grew to 690 ha. SWF086 and SWF087 are close to each other. SWF087 started at the Spurfield railway marker, near a bend in the Salteaux River.

As of May 19, the Lesser Slave River was still between the wildfires and the Old Smith Hwy.

Secondary highways are not on 511, but a reputable source said it was closed from west of the West Fawcett Road to the east of the township road by the Tollenaar Bridge, which was the area evacuated.

As of May 19 at 3 p.m., Hwy. 2 remained open, but could close at any time. For up to date road information, check 511 Alberta.

The May 19 Slave Lak area update said, “Helicopters are bucketing on hotspots and firefighters with water trucks are working together with local fire departments on the ground. Airtankers will be deployed once visibility improves. An Incident Management Team is on the way and members of the military have arrived.”

Other evacuations
On May 16 at 3 p.m., the Town of Swan Hills issued an evacuation order. Like people living on the Old Smith Hwy. this was preceeded by first a four-hour and then a one-hour evacuation alert.

This evacuation was caused by SWF063. This wildfires, is part of the Grizzly complex. These four wildfires were started by lightning on May 4. SWF063 burnt through East Prairie Métis Settlement, a parts of Big Lakes County southeast of High Prairie. On May 7, it stopped seven km south of High Prairie. As of May 19, that border held. However, the week of May 15 to 19 the fire moved southeast toward Swan Hills.

The morning of May 15 it was 24 km from the Town of Swan Hills. However, by May 16 at 9 p.m. it was an estimated 16 km from the town. As of May 19 at 3 p.m., the time of the last Slave Lake Forest Area Wildfire Update prior to publication, it was still around 16 km from the town.

Ongoing evacuations
From May 14 and ongoing, the Town of Slave Lake was hosting evacuees from the Dene Tha’ First Nation, west of High Level.

The week of May 15 to 19 the following communities in the Slave Lake Forest Area remained evacuated: East Prairie Métis Settlement (evacuated on May 5), Peavine Métis Settlement (evacuated on May 14), and Chipewyan Lake (evacuated on May 14).

East Prairie was in High Prairie. Peavine in Falher and Grouard, Swan Hills in Barrhead, and the Old Smith Hwy. evacuees were at the Flatbush Community Complex. Chipewyan Lake in Wabasca.

People living in Big Lakes County southeast of High Prairie and southwest of Sucker Creek First Nation were evacuated on May 13. They returned home on May 18. Upon their return, they were put on one-hour evacuation alert From May 13 and ongoing, Sucker Creek was on an evacuation alert – first one-hour, then downgraded on May 18 to four-hours.

Grizzly complex
As of May 19, the Slave Lake Forest Area had 11 out of control wildfires.

The Grizzly wildfire complex is SWF057, SWF063, and SWF064, which started in the Swan Hills.

As of May 19, SWF057 was over 30 km southwest of Slave Lake and 27 km south of Kinuso. On May 18, it caused the closure of Hwy. 33 from the Hwy. 2 turnoff to south of Swan Hills. This was the second time this fire closed that stretch of road. As of May 19 at 3 p.m., this road closure was ongoing.

On May 14, SWF057 was 3,136 ha. By May 19, it was 8,711 ha.

The location of SWF063 has already been mentioned. On May 14, it was 69,074 ha. On May 19, it was 92,742 ha.

SWF064 is southwest of SWF063 and not near any communities. As of May 19, it was over 40 km northwest of Swan Hills. From May 14 to 19, it was 22,220 ha.

Nipisi complex
The week of May 15 to 19, two Nipisi wildfires merged. These were SWF059 and SWF060. They are now called SWF060.

During the week, they remained 2.3 km east of the border of Whitefish Lake First Nation. Sprinklers and a fire guard are in place. As of May 14, SWF060 was 16,688 ha and SWF059 was 1,036 ha. As of May 19, the combined SWF060 was 35,000 ha.

Chipewyan Lake
On May 14, SWF081 started six km north of Chipewyan Lake.

The community of Chipewyan Lake on the southwest edge of this lake. The M.D. of Opportunity evacuated it on May 14. As of May 19, it was still evacuated.

SWF081 grew north and south, burning between Chipewyan Lake and Carrot Lake. This wildfire grew quickly; on May 15 it was 1,260 ha. As of May 19 at 3 p.m., it was 10,800 ha.

Photo of Slave Lake Wildfire 086 (SWF086) one of the fires between Smith and Slave Lake, on May 17 at 8:13 p.m. Courtesy of Alberta Wildfire.
A water bomber from Manitoba sits at the tanker base at the Slave Lake airport, while smoke billows from the Grizzly complex, likely Slave Lake Wildfire 063 (SWF063) south of Slave Lake, on May 16.