Workers airlifted to safety as wildfire spreads along Highway 22 near Chain Lakes Provincial Park
Helicopters rescued several workers and RCMP have closed roads as wildfire runs rampant on the west side of Highway 22 in the M.D. of Ranchland.
A mandatory evacuation order was issued Wednesday afternoon for areas along Chimney Rock Road, west of Highway 22, between Highway 520 and Highway 533. Residents are asked to call the M.D. office at 403-646-3131 as officials attempt to ensure everyone is accounted for.
"Anytime we see a fire in the grassy areas with high winds like this, there's the potential for a fire to start easily and spread quickly," said Travis Fairweather, Alberta Wildlife information officer. "Anytime we see fire behaviour like what we're seeing today, with rate of spreads in the 60 to 80 metres a minute range, that certainly puts an alarm for us."
A team of workers, including MIke Cigan, were working on excavation and trenching project for the installation of gas and electrical lines on Wednesday morning when RCMP notified them of the impending danger.
“We were originally told to just hang back and just wait it out and see how it goes and if they don’t come back in 30 minutes they advised us to leave," said Cigan. "We took it upon ourselves to try and leave.”
The group tried to drive from the scene but officers turned them around. “They wouldn’t let us cross the road because the smoke was so bad,” said Cigan.”“We were helicoptered out. We were forced to stand back and remove ourselves from the job site and leave our equipment behind and all our tools.”
Cigan said that, as far as he could tell, the fire's damage had been limited to areas of grass. “There’s the odd home that’s spread out here and there but I don’t believe any of them are on fire.”
Wayne Ritchie's property is out of harm's way but the rancher arrived with an empty trailer to see what he could do to help.
“We’ve all been on pins and needles about this all summer and when you hear there’s a fire you come down and see what you can do to help,” said Ritchie. “Just about everybody that owns land down there I’ve helped out in some form of fashion. They’re all trying to wean calves and get cows out of the hills. It’s kind of a dangerous time. Cattle are concentrated near the hills."
Ritchie encountered a roadblock along Highway 22 and the rancher's effort to assist was halted. “I got turned around here. Obviously the RCMP are trying to minimize chaos.”
The rancher says the fire is reminiscent of a massive fire that burned in the area in the mid-1990s and 'has the potential to be just as bad'. “I imagine the big worry is if it gets across the highway then it could take quite a swath of country.”
For updated information, visit the Alberta Emergency Alert website.