Robyn Dwyer says they packed up and left just before an evacuation order was issued in High Level
As a nurse, clinical educator and former volunteer with the fire department, Robyn Dwyer is used to dealing with all kinds of stressful situations.
But when the native Newfoundlander and her family were forced Monday to evacuate from the town where they live in northern Alberta, it was an unsettling feeling that hit home.
“It’s definitely an eerie feeling when you get an emergency alert on your cellphone and you realize it’s for you,” said the 35-year-old, who is originally from Blackhead, near Western Bay, in the Trinity-Conception Bay area of Newfoundland.
Dwyer, her husband — who she says didn’t want to be identified — and their 20-month-old son, Rhys, live in High Level, Alta., and were among the 4,000 residents who were ordered to leave their homes to escape a growing and approaching wildfire.
The blaze started in the Chuckegg Creek area, just south of the town, and has been burning for several days. Its size is estimated to be 69,000 hectares.
The first sign of smoke in the area was spotted about three days ago, Dwyer said, but there was no immediate threat. She said town officials kept residents updated via social media, and when the blaze drew closer, warnings were issued to be prepared for the worst.
“That’s when we started packing up,” Dwyer said. “It was starting to get quite smoky.”
Dwyer also helped staff at Northwest Health Centre evacuate patients from the building, including 10 acute care and 10 long-term patients. By 1:30 p.m. Monday, the hospital was empty, she said.
When the evacuation order came at 4 p.m., the fire was about three kilometres from High Level, she said.
Dwyer and her family, with a dog and two cats in tow, made the five-hour drive to Slave Lake, where they had planned to stay in a hotel. They later drove to Edmonton to wait it out.
“They initially told us it will be at least three days. Now, they’re telling us to prepare for five days,” she said. “But I’m glad we left when we did. Some people stayed behind.”
Dwyer said she was lucky, as many of their belongings had already been sent to Newfoundland, as they plan to move back after 13 years of living in Alberta — if Dwyer can find employment here.
She said the evacuation was orderly, with very little panic. She said she didn’t panic, as she had helped out with efforts during serious fires in Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray in 2016.
“I remember seeing images from Fort McMurray — people driving through the flames and paint peeling off their cars,” Dwyer said. “It wasn’t anything like that. But I’m glad we left when we did and I’m glad we’re all safe.”
According to media reports, 89 firefighters are battling the High Level fire, along with 24 helicopters and several air tankers.