Rural Albertans, officials discuss evacuation plans as wildfire season kicks off

One Alberta farmer says he isn't willing to abandon his livestock

As wildfire swept closer to his farm near Wildwood, Alta., Jens Jorgensen made a choice.

The small community 120 kilometres west of Edmonton was under an evacuation order about this time last spring, as fires spread across Yellowhead County.

"Didn't matter what direction we looked — you could see smoke and fire," Jorgensen said, during an interview on his farm on Saturday.

CBC: Jens Jorgensen farms near Wildwood, Alta. Last year, the area was under an evacuation order due to wildfire threats, but Jorgensen decided not to leave, citing concern for his livestock. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

Jens Jorgensen farms near Wildwood, Alta. Last year, the area was under an evacuation order due to wildfire threats, but Jorgensen decided not to leave, citing concern for his livestock. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

CANADA'S WILDFIRES: Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub to keep up with the latest on the active start to wildfire season across Canada.

Jorgensen keeps beef cattle, horses and poultry on his farm. He and his wife also run a dog-boarding business. If they left the evacuation zone, they worried they'd be blocked from getting back in to tend to the animals — for who knows how long.

"The animals are dependent on us. If we leave, who feeds them? During that time, the power went out. Without power, there's no water. So our animals, without us, would have had no water, no feed," he said. "I know we would have lost animals in that time."

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Alberta wildfire evacuation alert - April 23, 2024

And so they stayed, relying on generators, gas and supplies they already had on the farm.

Jorgensen and his neighbours plowed up fire breaks and got ready for the worst, but fortunately the flames never reached them.

Most Albertans subject to wildfire evacuations in 2023 followed them and left their properties behind. But officials reported encountering those who refused to leave.

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Some were farmers, like Jorgensen. A survey of over 600 Yellowhead County residents who were under evacuation last spring found that about a third refused to do so.

It wasn't just rural residents. In Edson, Mayor Kevin Zahara has spoken with people who lived in town but wouldn't leave, particularly when the community was on its second of three 2023 evacuations — the first two for wildfire, the third for flooding.

"They understood the dangers. Their vehicles were fuelled and packed and ready to go, but they just didn't feel like it was the right opportunity for them to leave at that point in time," Zahara said Saturday.

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Like the county, the town commissioned reviews of last year's disaster response. When it comes to people who didn't evacuate, Zahara said they learned that while people were concerned about what could happen to their properties if left unattended, others weren't in a financial position to leave, and didn't know about the transportation and other supports that had been set up to support evacuees.

Emergency kit items - hurricane, wildfire, evacuations, safety, tips

As mayor, Zahara is the one who has to sign off on evacuation orders. He says it's not a decision that's made lightly.

"This is rural Alberta so people are very, very tough people and they don't want to just leave it at a moment's notice," Zahara said.

"But we certainly encourage people to leave if that evacuation notice is given again. It's just too risky for our emergency officials to have to worry about people within the community."

CANADA'S WILDFIRES: Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub to keep up with the latest on the active start to wildfire season across Canada

RCMP Alberta are gearing up for what's expected to be another challenging year for wildfires across the province.

Officers do have the authority to uphold evacuation orders issued by different levels of government.

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Cpl. Mathew Howell said police won't intervene in the case of adults who are on their own property within an evacuation, though officers do have discretion if there is imminent danger or if someone leaves their property and is wandering around a community.

He said in some cases, police have ended up asking people who refuse to leave for their next-of-kin contact information and dental records so that they can be identified if something happens.

Alberta wildfires as of April 22, 2024

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Police have the authority to remove children from evacuation zones through child protection laws, but the first step would be to encourage their families to leave together.

"The idea is not for us to try to take more authority than we have or to try to push people out. We're trying to keep you safe. We're trying to keep people in the community safe," Howell said.

Howell said police understand that many people are concerned about what might happen to their homes and belongings, but said there were no confirmed cases of looting during evacuations in 2023 and that any cases of breaking and entering were dealt with.

For farmers like Jorgensen, Howell said there are options for moving livestock, but saving human life remains the first priority.

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Todd Loewen, Alberta's minister of Forestry and Parks, said the province will find ways to allow farmers back into evacuation zones to take care of livestock if the situation arises this year.

"Obviously, if there's a raging wildfire that they have to go through, then we won't let that happen — and they won't want to do that either — but we'll make sure we get them back in as soon as possible, we'll make sure that livestock is taken care of," Loewen said, speaking to reporters at the Legislature on Monday.

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Jorgensen was frustrated by how authorities handled last year's evacuations, and he's hopeful that there's a better plan this year should wildfires pop up again.

Last year, Jorgensen and his neighbours ended up taking matters into their own hands — moving animal trailers across fields because the roads were blocked and they were trying to get animals out of the zone.

This year, Jorgensen is retrofitting a crop sprayer and is planning to fill the large tank with water and use it for firefighting if needed.

He hopes there's a better plan for farmers whose operations are inside evacuation zones. If there's not, he's prepared to defy orders again.

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"Nobody's gonna protect our property once we're gone. And I can do everything in my power to protect it if I stay," he said.

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This article was originally written by Paige Parsons and published for CBC News.

Thumbnail image courtesy: Alberta Wildfire