'Unprecedented': Bill Blair says military help on the way to battle Alberta wildfires

·5 min read

Canadian Forces personnel are being deployed to help with Alberta's early and intense wildfire season that has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.

In Ottawa, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair acknowledged the "unprecedented wildfire situation currently taking place in Alberta" and said the federal government has agreed to a request for assistance from the province.

"We are already moving resources into those communities from the Canadian Armed Forces and other resources to provide the assistance that they requested," he said.

"They also asked for expertise in construction engineering … and the Canadian Armed Forces is located in Alberta and has that equipment and can do that job."

Military resources are to be provided for two weeks initially, with a one-week extension possible if it's determined help is still needed.

The troops are to go to the Grande Prairie, Fox Creek and Drayton Valley areas.

Alberta remained in a state of emergency, which was declared Saturday. There were 81 active wildfires as of Thursday afternoon, with 23 out of control.

More than 16,000 people remained out of their homes, down from a high of nearly 31,000. Additional fire crews from British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Yukon have joined the fight in recent days.

The military personnel will help support firefighting efforts, help in mop-up operations and aid in evacuating isolated communities.

Blair said there is one request from Alberta that the military is not prepared to fulfil.

"They also asked, for example, that the Canadian Armed Forces would be deployed to provide security in evacuated communities and that's a policing function," Blair said.

"I've said we're not going to … provide the military to do that because that's not what they are there for."

The Alberta government announced it would join the federal government in a donation-matching program with the Canadian Red Cross for disaster relief efforts that would see every $1 donated become $3.

Also Thursday, King Charles expressed sympathy for those affected by the blazes.

"We send our most special thoughts and prayers to all those who have been displaced and who have lost their homes, businesses or property," the King said in a written statement released through the Governor General's office.

"We hold many fond memories of our visits to Western Canada and know that those affected will rise to this challenge with customary Canadian strength, resilience and determination."

A resident of Drayton Valley, Deborah Guttman, 70, recalled she was getting ready for bed on the night of May 4 when the order came in to evacuate the town, located about 130 kilometres west of Edmonton.

Since then, she has been camping in her sons' recreational vehicles in the parking lot of a Walmart in Spruce Grove, just outside Edmonton.

Guttman's RV was among at least half a dozen that were parked in the lot Thursday afternoon.

"We're relatively comfortable," she said, sitting outside with her dog. "The community has been absolutely, incredibly wonderful, kind and generous with gifts of food and gift cards and … paper towels."

The residents camping in the Spruce Grove Walmart parking lot say it is easier for them to buy necessities whenever they run short on supplies.

Although grateful to front-line workers, Guttman said she wasn't expecting to be out of her home for so long.

"Each day, it's harder than the day before," she said.

Guttman said she is ready to go home and take a long shower.

"I think the unknown of this situation … those fears … affects you. You're on edge a little bit more every day."

Guttman said she left her home with just her pets, medicine and a pair of undergarments.

Local churches and organizations have been helping people living in their RVs with food, water and other necessities.

Wayne Marsh, who has been parked in the same lot in Spruce Grove, said he feels safe being across from a police station.

Marsh left Drayton Valley last week and has since been camping in the parking lot with his wife and dog.

He said he didn't want to go to the evacuation centres because he didn't want to take from "people that are in absolute need."

"We're self-sufficient here."

However, he said, their stay has been long and they "would love to be home."

Marsh said his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, has been having a hard time cooped up inside a trailer.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Services Canada said Thursday that wildfires are threatening four First Nations in Alberta, including the Little Red River Cree Nation, where more than 100 structures have been lost in the community of Fox Lake.

Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation has also been hit hard, with fire destroying 45 structures and power infrastructure.

Five First Nations were no longer considered as being under serious threat, while 12 others were identified to be on watch for threat of wildfire.

Cooler weather in recent days has allowed many people to return home, but officials warned temperatures are expected to rise again in the coming days.

"I would ask Albertans to remain vigilant," said Christie Tucker with the Alberta Wildfire service. "We are not out of the woods."

— with files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Ritika Dubey in Edmonton

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story; An earlier version said Bill Blair was public safety minister.