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Smoke evident in Edmonton; winds could dramatically worsen wildfire situation

EDMONTON – A haze of smoke from a massive forest fire in northwest Alberta has drifted as far south as Edmonton this morning.

Firefighters from High Level were dispatched to Zama City on Thursday to wet down the roofs of houses and other structures in case the fire turns toward the tiny hamlet in northwest Alberta.

The fire spawned by a lightning strike on June 21 has consumed 100,000 hectares and was 10 kilometres north of Zama City on Wednesday before taking a slight turn in direction and slowing down. The blaze remained about a dozen kilometres from the remote oil and gas outpost in Mackenzie County on Thursday night, and officials were monitoring it as winds that had died to a bare whisper all day began to pick up.

“It has been maintaining its distance and just creeping along, but we sent firemen up there from High Level to sprinkler things as a precautionary measure,� said John Klassen, director of operations for Mackenzie County. “Potentially it could become a dangerous situation should it take a turn for the worse.�

Rob Harris, fire officer for Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resources Development, said 119 firefighters were battling to contain the fire, one of a dozen burning out of control in the sparsely populated county. A team of 21 firefighters from the Yukon were expected to arrive Thursday night.

The province sent a request for assistance across Canada for an additional 110 firefighters on Wednesday but has yet to receive any commitments, likely because other provinces are facing the same hot and dry conditions that have fuelled the flames in Alberta.

There are 49 fires burning around the province in all, the most serious being the one approaching Zama City, another one 15 kilometres southeast of La Crete and a third fire 30 kilometres north of Meander River. The fire near La Crete has grown from 1,000 hectares to 2,500 in the past 24 hours, while the Meander River blaze has nearly doubled to 3,000 hectares.

Neither of those fires is considered a threat to lives, although crews have been taking steps to protect structures in case conditions worsen.

A total of 324 people have registered at an evacuation centre set up in the town hall at High Level, including 160 residents who were ordered to leave Zama City on Wednesday and 164 who voluntarily left the Dene Tha’ First Nation. Only firefighters and government officials are being allowed to enter Zama City, more than 900 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

“Right now it is not in any imminent danger, but depending on the winds and weather conditions everything could change quite quickly,� Klassen said. “We are trying to stay ahead of the game rather than being reactive.�

A team of about 100 firefighters is battling the fire near La Crete, with another 100 working the fire north of Meander River. The province also has aircraft and heavy machinery at all locations.

Frank Oberle, the MLA for Peace River, said Thursday the fires at La Crete and Meander River seem well in hand, but expressed concern about the one close to Zama City.

“That fire still poses a great deal of danger,� Oberle said.

mklinkenberg@edmontonjournal.com

Twitter.com/@martykej

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