The 2023 wildfire season in Alberta has been a wild rollercoaster ride but not a very enjoyable one. It has been absolutely devastating for some communities. Tens of thousands of Albertans around the province were evacuated from their homes at various times throughout the month of May and into June. Some Albertans had the unfortunate experience of being evacuated multiple times.
The Town of Swan Hills was evacuated for eight days, from May 16 until May 24, due to a wildfire northwest of town (SWF063) that had first been spotted on May 4. Swan Hills was fortunate that the prevailing winds and weather had kept this fire away from the municipality, fanning it to the northwest, where it tore through the East Prairie Metis Settlement and into the Banana Belt region south of High Prairie. This wildfire would grow to an astounding 123,670 ha.
The forecast for winds and weather conditions protecting Swan Hills changed on the evening of May 15, leading to the issuance of a wildfire advisory for the town at 7:20 PM. The advisory warned residents to be prepared for a possible evacuation and encouraged them to gather important documents, pets, medications, and enough food, water, and supplies for at least three days.
At 1:20 PM on May 16, the advisory became a mandatory evacuation order directing Swan Hills residents to evacuate immediately. Residents were informed that an evacuation center had been set up at the Barrhead Agrena and were encouraged to register there, in person or by phone. The people of Swan Hills packed the documents, keepsakes, and supplies they had gathered into their vehicles, along with their family members and pets, and evacuated the town.
The Towns of Barrhead and Westlock went well above and beyond in their efforts to feed, house, and support Swan Hills’ displaced residents for the eight days of the evacuation.
As the evacuation continued, emergency responders worked tirelessly through the week to set up structure protections in and around Swan Hills, including setting up and filling additional water tanks in strategic locations, setting up and preparing water canons, and establishing property sprinkler protection. Heavy equipment and hand crews also “blackened” the fireguard surrounding the town, turning the ground over until there was only black soil on top and no vegetation. The Town also maintained constant contact with Alberta Forestry during this time for consultation and to coordinate their efforts.
Alerts and notifications informing Swan Hills residents that the evacuation order had been lifted were sent out at roughly 9:00 AM on Wednesday, May 24. However, the town remained under a 4-hour evacuation alert. This evacuation alert was lifted on the afternoon of May 29. Fortunately, the Swan Hills community came home to a town that had remained untouched by the wildfire.
Luckily, the weather in the Swan Hills area has included a fair bit of rain at relatively regular intervals since then, keeping the risk of wildfire at a minimum. While wildfire season in Alberta doesn’t end until October 31, the current threat is still fairly low and does not show any indication of significantly worsening for the foreseeable future.
The Swan Hills community was fortunate to come out of this year’s wildfire season unscathed. Hopefully, our luck will continue to hold for the years to come.
Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette