A lineup of vehicles in High Level on August 17, 2023. Photo: Amy Stuart
When wildfires forced Alberta and NWT residents from their homes in their thousands this summer, many stayed or passed through High Level.
The town in northern Alberta, normally home to around 3,200 people, has been hosting evacuees since May from an ever-changing roster of affected communities.
High Level has been home at times this summer to residents displaced from Fox Lake, Garden River and Rainbow Lake in Alberta, as well as Hay River, Enterprise and Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories.
Thousands more from Yellowknife and surrounding areas have passed through on their way to other towns and cities farther south, some staying overnight and many getting gas and other supplies.
“They’re our neighbours,” said Jena-Raye Clarke, director of community services for the Town of High Level.
“It’s just really important for us to do it for them, because we know that they would do it for us,” Clarke added. In 2019, some High Level residents forced to evacuate because of a wildfire did head north to Hay River.
According to Clarke, High Level has been providing food, toiletries, blankets, pillows and pet food to evacuees, alongside mental health services and other supports through partnerships with Alberta Health Services and organizations such as the Mackenzie Family Resource Network
“It was the whole community,” she said. “The town did the best we could, but we’re so grateful that everyone reached out to help us as well.”
Clarke said High Level now feels prepared for these types of emergencies as it opens an evacuation centre every year. But this summer has been different, as the town has had to house many evacuees for long periods of time.
“This has been the busiest summer,” she said.
“The biggest challenge was just at the beginning, getting the supplies that we needed … But then once we had them, we were OK.”
Evacuees heading home to the Yellowknife area have struggled to find accommodation in northern Alberta this week. High Level, in response, reopened its evacuee registration centre from Tuesday on a 24-hour basis, offering meal vouchers, refreshments, washroom, and emergency accommodation.
The town says the centre will close at 5pm on Friday, then reopen on Monday from 9am until 1pm and maintain those hours until Friday, September 15, offering meal vouchers, refreshments and washrooms. Evacuees are asked to call 780-841-1268 to arrange assistance when the centre is closed.
A dozen communities and nearly 70 percent of the NWT’s population have been affected by evacuation orders this summer.
In Alberta, the province says evacuation orders have affected 47 local authorities and more than 37,000 residents.
As is also the case in the NWT, this year’s Alberta wildfire season burned a record area of land – 1.9 million hectares, compared to a previous record of 1.2 million hectares in 1981.
Despite the province’s own troubles, High Level is one of a lengthy roster of communities hosting NWT evacuees in recent weeks.
Other designated host communities in Alberta include Zama City, Edmonton, Leduc, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lloydminster, Fort McMurray, Fox Creek, Red Deer, St Albert, Lac La Biche, Valleyview and Whitecourt.