As Jenny Dempster and her two kids packed their truck to evacuate 14 days ago, she got the news her retired firefighter husband would be staying back to help protect the town from the out-of-control wildfire billowing towards them.
“We were putting everything in the truck and getting ready to go, and he said, ‘You know I’m not going with you, right?’” Dempster recalled. “I think if he had been with us I would have felt like there was nothing left behind that couldn’t be replaced. But we had left a thing behind … so that was the most upsetting.”
This made Monday morning an emotional reunion for the family of four as Jenny Dempster returned to High Level with their 12-year-old daughter Jana and 10-year-old son Jack when the two-week evacuation order was lifted. “We pulled right up on Main Street and jumped right out,” she said. “Lots of hugs.”
Shane Dempster made the decision to stay home and help the local department because he had prior experience.
“He just went to the hall and said ‘Where can I help? What can I do to help?” his wife said as the family unloaded their belongings outside their north High Level home.
“It was the longest time we’ve ever been away from him,” said Jack, who happily danced for cars passing by after the reunion with his dad.
The Dempsters were among 4,000 people eager to get home, including residents of the surrounding areas of Mackenzie County and the Dene Tha’ First Nation communities of Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh, after hearing the news Sunday they would be able to return — albeit it with the knowledge they need to be prepared to leave again if fire conditions change.
Scattered rain and cooler temperatures helped give fire crews time to contain the flames in key places leading into Monday, as well as add fire guards in communities such as Paddle Prairie, where some homes were destroyed last week. But there are still three active wildfires in the High Level forest area, including the Chuckegg Creek blaze south of town that is 275,985 hectares and the Jackpot Creek fire to the north around Steen River that remain out-of-control.
Hundreds of kilometres away to the southeast of High Level, another cluster of out-of-control fires in the Slave Lake forest area saw minimal growth, according to the province, though two previously separate fires merged into one to cover 238,254 hectares. The rain in parts of the region hadn’t reached areas north of Lesser Slave Lake as of Monday morning and the communities including Wabasca, Chipewyan Lake Village and the areas of the Peerless Trout First Nation remain under an evacuation order.
In High Level, sprinklers and water tanks are set up on the forest perimeters of the town in case conditions change.
And even with the cautions, High Level residents started pouring into the town early Monday morning along Highway 58 before the evacuation order was lifted, but town councillors and officials were already poised to welcome them home. They greeted the evacuees by name and provided re-entry packages with details on cleaning out taps and disposing of weeks-old food.
While the town was cleared, firefighters also surveyed properties and moved propane tanks and barbecues away from homes and identified potential fire risks with coloured tape.
Residents are asked to keep any tape in place and contact the local fire department for advice on fireproofing strategies.
Homeowners eager to get to work in their gardens will have to adhere to a sprinkler ban until further notice. The water restrictions are in place in order to reserve supplies for firefighting. The town is asking residents to hold off on watering the lawn or washing vehicles.
Many residents spent their first day back getting settled in, checking around their homes and giving their lawns a much-needed trim.
But Monday was also spent reconnecting with the community that has been separated for too long at a town barbecue.
That’s where the Dempster family embraced Erica Harder and her two boys who were separated from firefighter Josh Lambert for the past two weeks.
“It was terrifying,” Harder said of Lambert staying back to fight the fires. “The boys cried themselves to sleep almost every night and it was hard being apart, but at the same time I know Josh felt better with us being safe and away from here.”
Her two boys, 10-year-old Kash and Dominic, 7, spent the two weeks swimming in different communities across the city including Slave Lake, Beaverlodge and Edmonton before settling in Grande Prairie.
As the boys were trying to walk in their dad’s firefighting jacket, Erica said the family plans to spend as much time together as possible, including finishing up a camping trip that was cut short due to the wildfire.
Town Mayor Crystal McAteer said the wildfire has been eye-opening for the communities and have made them better prepared for emergencies in the future.
“I’ve never been through anything like this before and normal for us is going to be on high alert,” she said. “We did everything on the fly.”
Although spread across the province, the heart of the community never faltered — demonstrated Monday morning by 20 of the town’s structural protection firefighters standing under a massive Canadian flag welcoming evacuees home.
Cars drove by honking with gratitude while passengers shouted “thank you” to the first responders who waved them into town. Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt said the town’s firefighters were given the day off and surrounding communities stepped up to take over the shifts.
Schmidt said the support firefighters received from local businesses that stayed open is what kept them going. A much-needed meal or coffee was free at Temptations Cafe & Gifts in town through donations from businesses and residents who wanted to show their gratitude.
These funds went toward free meals for the first-responders or “all the heroes” as cafe owners Sherry and Harvey Matthews like to call them.
“Most of these guys here in town are like family. We see them every day,” Harvey Matthews said. “We always want to support the community and help the best way we can.”
One of the few food places open with the use of a generator, the Matthews supplied daily meals for about 150 first responders. It was busy and at some points stressful, but Sherry said Monday they’d do it all over again.
Children returning to town learned they’d be starting an early summer vacation as the Fort Vermilion School Division and Alberta Education announced the school year wrapped up for “student safety.”
“This closure is at the request of the school division, which faces various challenges due to the wildfire situation in northern Alberta,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement Monday. “An inspection by the school division’s insurance holder has indicated that all of the schools need to be professionally cleaned to ensure equipment, such as HVAC systems, are in safe operating condition.”
All exams are cancelled for the remainder of the year, and a student’s classroom mark will stand as their final mark.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
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