'This fire is a beast': Wildfire threatening Edson, Alta., less than 2 km from the town

Smoky skies in Edson, Alta., on the evening of June 9, 2023, just before an evacuation order was issued for the town. (Submitted by Nicki Frison - image credit)
Smoky skies in Edson, Alta., on the evening of June 9, 2023, just before an evacuation order was issued for the town. (Submitted by Nicki Frison - image credit)

Despite a lack of significant growth Saturday, officials from municipalities west of Edmonton say the wildfire situation remains serious with flames less than two kilometres from the town of Edson, Alta.

An evacuation order was issued for the town and parts of Yellowhead County, Alta., Friday evening as fires jumped guards and moved closer to populated areas.

In a Saturday afternoon video update, Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara pleaded for anyone still in the community of about 8,000 people to leave.

"This is going to be a very dire situation. We've always said we're going to be honest about what's going on. This is not good and this fire is a beast," he said.

In an update Saturday around 7 p.m., officials said fires did not grow significantly Saturday as anticipated, but were still an active threat.

"It's not done by far," Yellowhead County chief administrative officer Luc Mercier said, adding that the lack of growth was due to slight precipitation, the cooling effect of smoke and winds that were not as strong as expected.

Earlier on Saturday, Mercier said that the main fire threatening communities spans 130,000 hectares and had "grown drastically" over 24 hours, with the fire spreading in three different directions.

Mercier said one of those areas is burning just 1.5 kilometres south of Edson.

No properties are yet known to have been destroyed by fire, he said Saturday evening. The Cascade power plant has not been impacted.

Officials warned the situation was fluid and could change as winds are anticipated to blow toward the town starting later in the evening.

Warm weather over the next few days is also a concern.

"We've got some good news for today," Mercier said. "We have a lot of resources there, as much as we can on those fires."

Yellowhead County Mayor Wade Williams says he and Zahara spoke with Todd Loewen, Alberta's forestry, parks and tourism minister Saturday morning.

He said Loewen assured them more resources are being moved in to fight the fire.

"We cannot stress enough: it is time to leave this area. Pack up and head out," Williams said Saturday afternoon.

"Last night, the fire that hit Highway 47 travelled in excess of 30 [kilometres] in the last 24 hours," he said. "That is unbelievable. That is not something that is ever seen."

Officials warn that residents who have been forced to leave their homes should anticipate to be away for some time. Mercier said people should expect the evacuation order to be in effect until at least next Wednesday, although cautioned this was only an estimate and not definitive.

Extreme fire danger in Edson forest area

This is the second time Edson residents have been forced to flee their homes in a little over a month.

The town was evacuated May 5 because of an encroaching wildfire, but residents were allowed to return on May 8. Other parts of Yellowhead County also had to evacuate in May, but by the end of the month, everyone had been allowed to return.

Mayor Zahara said in an interview with CBC that the wildfire damaged the overflow campground in Edson's Willmore Park on Friday, but otherwise flames haven't reached homes or structures in the town.

"We are anticipating that to potentially change with the changing weather conditions," he said.

"I know that over the last number of weeks it's been fairly calm after our first evacuation, but things have changed drastically over the last 48 hours."

In the hamlet of Peers, Alta., on Saturday, within the Yellowhead County evacuation zone, Alex Leonard said the situation is "surreal."

He said he's staying around for now.

"I know everybody — I run vehicles that can help people," he said.

But he said the fire danger over the last month has put people on edge.

"I go to work and I go out into the woods — is it going to be on fire when I get there? Am I going to be able to get out? Am I going to be safe?"

Jamie McCannel/CBC
Jamie McCannel/CBC

Melissa Story, Alberta Wildfire provincial information officer, said over 100 wildland firefighters are battling the fire closest to Edson, which is part of the larger Pembina complex wildfire.

"We're doing everything we can to reinforce containment lines on the north side of [the fire]," she said in an interview.

"We're seeing windy conditions in that area. We're also seeing some elevated temperatures, which is going to add to the wildfire behaviour and wildfire danger in that area."

Fire danger has been extreme in the Edson forest area as hot and dry conditions return to the province. Heat warnings are in effect for much of the province, with temperatures nearing 30 C.

Meteorologist Brennan Allen, with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said a typical daytime high for the Edson area at this time of year is 19 C.

"To give you an idea, today we're forecasting a high of 29 C — that's 10 degrees above normal, so that's quite significant," he told CBC on Saturday.

Allen said the area could see thunderstorms starting Saturday evening, but a more significant weather pattern change isn't in the forecast until the middle of next week.

"It might bring some significant rain. It's a little bit too early to say what the amounts would look like, but definitely a big change from what we've been seeing the last few days. So that does look promising."

Caleb Perreaux/Radio-Canada
Caleb Perreaux/Radio-Canada

Edson is approximately 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, and evacuees have been told to register at the Edmonton Expo reception centre.

Gerry Clarke, co-ordinator with the City of Edmonton emergency support response team, said more than 250 people have registered at the reception centre, and about 50 people slept there overnight.

"The mood inside is pretty sombre," he said.

"They're willingly here — they don't probably want to be here, but at least they have a roof over their head."

Many more people have fled Edson, but Clarke said he suspects many have made their own plans to stay elsewhere.

As of 8 p.m. on Saturday evening, Alberta's wildfire dashboard listed 76 active wildfires inside forest protection areas, with 24 burning out of control.