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Yellowhead County Photo

Masha Scheele
reporter@hintonvoice.ca


Slave Lake. Fort McMurray. Marlboro. High Level.
Are people prepped if Hinton is added to the growing list of communities that experienced an evacuation alert or notice?

Brenda Walsh was aware of the fires that were coming dangerously close to Fort McMurray in 2016, but on the morning of May 3, her daughter went to school just like any other day and she headed off to work.

“In the morning it didn’t look so bad, but in the afternoon with the heat and wind it starts raging and then we noticed it was bad,” recalls Walsh, who took videos of the sky and the ashes falling down outside of her office.

Coworkers started to leave town and after being made aware that her neighbourhood was under evacuation order she made the call to her boss and headed back home.

“I have a box of pictures that I never put into albums or anything and it came to my mind that I should’ve grabbed them, but it was like I was running around in circles and I had to have someone telling me what to do almost,” said Walsh.

She packed some clothes, water, passports, and a bag of apples while her husband picked up their daughter at school, and their granddaughter, as her mom couldn’t get back into the city to get her. In hindsight, she would have done things different.

“I wouldn’t wait so long and I would be more prepared, like with my pictures and things like that. Things that can’t be replaced, your pictures, your special momentos. Some people lost so much of that,” she added.

With the only open highway heading north, they headed to Fort McKay on a quarter tank of gas.

“That’s another thing I would do to prepare ourselves is having gas in our tank. We only had barely a quarter of a tank,” said Walsh.

Walsh now has copies of important documents distributed between a few family members and says she would worry less about packing clothes and things that could be replaced.

Closer to home, Rosanna Ploentzke, owner of the Dreamcatcher Golf Course in Yellowhead County, was caught off guard when she was told to evacuate during the Marlboro fire over May long weekend.

She still had golfers out on her course. With little time to take care of her customers, let alone allow them to hook up their trailers, all she grabbed of personal effects was her purse and her dogs.

“I didn’t even take a jacket, and we have two companies and I have an external hard drive I should’ve grabbed and I take photographs and I should’ve grabbed my laptop and external hard drive for that one. I didn’t think of it until the middle of the night,” she said, echoing Walsh’s sentiments that there are things she would prepare differently in hindsight.

Neighbouring Marlboro and Robb have been subject to evacuation notices or alerts in the past calendar year, a large fire blazed on Hinton’s doorstep last June, and fire conditions in the area’s forests are high to extreme.

The reasons are piling up for Hintonites to pay heed to lessons learned by Walsh and Ploentzke and others who have had to leave their homes and businesses at a moment’s notice. The fire situation and conditions led to fire bans and off-highway vehicle (OHV) restrictions in the Yellowhead region to limit the chance of a human-caused wildfire.

Yellowhead County Photo
Marlboro wildfire on May 19

Hinton Fire Chief Todd Martens said the Town often follows the lead of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) when it comes to fire bans.

“They have weather meteorologists and experts in fire behaviour. They look at the numbers, the humidity, the fire index,” he added.

AAF stats show that in 2018, over 60 per cent of wildfires were human-caused and in the last five years 81 wildfires were started by off-highway vehicles (OHV). The decision when or where to implement a fire ban is done provincially depending on the fire hazard, type of weather condition forecasted and the type and level of fire activity being experienced provincially.

“That’s a big indicator, all the resources are in High Level right now for forestry and municipal, so there’s not a lot of resources around here, that plays into the decision as well,” stated Martens.

Firefighters, aircraft and equipment are pre-positioned across the province in order to be ready to fight new fires said AAF.

“When a significant amount of resources are allocated to fighting existing wildfires in other areas of the province, fire bans and OHV restrictions are a good tool to help minimize the probability of new wildfire ignitions in that area,” stated an email from Mélissa Lamadeleine, acting information officer in the Edson Forest Area, in response to questions from The Voice.

“While the risk of wildfire in your area may have decreased, the provincial wildfire situation may be different and more active as well as other locations that fall within your area.”

The province could issue a ban for the Edson Forest District that is protected as part of Alberta’s Forest Protection Area (FPA) in which Hinton is located, and Yellowhead County is responsible for the area outside of the FPA.

Municipalities, town, villages and summer villages take on the responsibility to issue fire bans within the boundaries of the municipal districts.

Martens stated that the biggest concern for wildfires around Hinton is during springtime, when chinooks have dried everything out and there hasn’t been enough time for the trees to turn green.

An added concern to the area are the dead trees from the mountain pine beetle, which serves like kindling.

Hinton has been proactive in Firesmarting within the town each year, including removing trees affected by the beetle, but the risks for wildfires are still there and it’s up to residents to prepare themselves.

In preparation for a wildfire, the Town of Hinton has an emergency response plan, which Martens calls multi-jurisdictional, as they would work together with Yellowhead County and AAF.

Martens and deputy Bryan Hall both spent time working in Fort McMurray during the wildfire in 2016.

Both Martens and Hall came back to Hinton with new knowledge to make the emergency response plan more efficient.

“We took away that documentation was very important, people showed up that weren’t supposed to be there. The billing side of things. Someone would show up with a truck and bill the province, that documentation for everything, the graders, the hose, the water trucks, the pumper trucks, all that kind of stuff. To get that documentation started first, so you know who’s there instead of people going all over the place,” said Martens.

This prompted a new look at the plan in Hinton, which was then reviewed and approved by the province.

“This year, council approved $75,000 to renew our emergency response plan, our evacuation plans and our sprinkler deployment plan. That will be contracted out and they will work in partnership with us to do that,” stated Martens.

Communications with other agencies has improved as a unified command system was initiated in the early stages of the Chuckegg Creek fire in High Level this year.

The unified command system is an application used when more than one agency work together to establish a common set of objectives and strategies and come up with a plan to fight the wildfire.

A three stage evacuation process was developed and accepted by all levels of government in Canada, including an evacuation alert, an evacuation order, and an evacuation rescind. Residents of Hinton are advised to prepare a 72-hour evacuation kit in case of an emergency as outline in the Town’s Four Steps To Prep brochure, from which the images on this centrespread were copied.

“We give away 72-hour kits, multiple times per year. We see with the community in Hinton, where we are three hours away from a major centre, we’re an hour away in any direction to a gas station. The 72-hour kit and preparing your vehicle and your emergency plan is such a huge part of that,” said Josh Yaworski, communications coordinator for the Town of Hinton.

During emergencies, you can stay informed through hinton.ca, Hinton’s social media pages, or sign up to receive notifications by clicking ‘Notify Me’ on the Town of Hinton’s website.