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Swan Hills residents return home

Mayor Craig Wilson thanks communities of Barrhead and Westlock for helping his residents in their time of need
The majority of Swan Hills residents have returned home after the mandatory evacuation order was lifted May 24.

BARRHEAD/SWANHILLS - Town of Swan Hills mayor Craig Wilson had nothing but praise for the work Barrhead and District Family Community Support Services (FCSS) did on accommodating the displaced residents forced out of their homes due to a wildfire encroaching on their community.

On May 24, at 2 p.m., the Town of Swan Hills lifted the mandatory evacuation order after eight days, allowing the more than 1,300 residents to return home.

The municipality issued the mandatory evacuation order on May 16 due to wildfire SWF-063.

Wilson, who stayed behind with several councillors and other essential municipal staff to help staff the municipality's emergency response centre (ERC), said they decided to evacuate based on recommendations by personnel from the ministries of (Environment and Protected Areas) and (Forestry, Parks and Tourism).

At the time, he said the fire was about 14 kilometres northwest of the community.

"It was moving pretty fast at four kilometres an hour, so we heeded the experts' recommendations," he said.

Wilson added that during the evacuation, the town was strangely quiet, estimating that there were less than 100 who remained.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the people that needed to leave left, but there are always a few people who decide to stay,” he said.

Fortunately, Wilson said, that did not become an issue due to the efforts of fire crews and a change of the weather, SFW-63 did not come much closer than 12 kilometres from the town.

As Swan Hills is almost equal distance to the Town of Whitecourt and Barrhead (with Whitecourt being about 10 minutes closer), the municipality had a choice as to which community they would ask to open a reception centre.

However, Wilson noted that because the communities of Valleyview, Fox Creek and Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation referred their evacuees to Whitecourt and were already 'taxed to the limit', he said they decided to ask Barrhead's FCSS to open a reception centre for their residents.

"It was the smartest decision we made because of the treatment we received from FCSS and all of the support services in the community, and Westlock, because they backed up Barrhead, was just exceptional," he said. "It was a big ask. When you have to open up your community to 1,000 plus new residents and try to help find accommodations for one night is one thing. But seven, eight, or nine nights is another. All the feedback from my family, friends and residents that left here all said they were all treated amazingly, and I did not hear one bad report about the reception centre, the hotels, restaurants, or grocery stores."

He also specifically mentioned the staff at Hillcrest Lodge that housed upwards of 50 Swan Hills residents.

"They all raved about the treatment they received there," Wilson said.

He also noted that Swan Hills evacuees received the same positive reception from the entire community from Westlock.

He added that although he has passed on his thanks and appreciation to Barrhead mayor Dave McKenzie and Westlock mayor Ralph Leriger, he wanted to do so for the residents of both communities.

"There is a debt of gratitude from the residents from the Town of Swan Hills to these communities, especially Barrhead, for all their kindness and caring during our hour of need," he said.

Swan Hills Healthcare Centre

While the evacuation order was in effect, the Swan Hills Healthcare Centre was completely closed, and all patients were evacuated to care facilities in the Edmonton Zone.

According to a release from Alberta Health Services (AHS), the emergency department at the Swan Hills Healthcare Centre re-opened at 7 a.m. on May 25, with on-site physician coverage resuming later that evening.

In other words, the emergency services that were available prior to the evacuation have been restored.

However, other services remain closed, and in-patient admissions have been paused. While local Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are working again, they will transport patients to other facilities as needed.

"Patient safety and care remain our top priorities and we are working hard to ensure the community has urgent care available," the release states.

The release notes that the Whitecourt Healthcare Centre emergency department is also available for walk-in patients.

Swan Hills School

A notice posted to the Pembina Hills School Division website indicated that classes resumed as normal at Swan Hills School on May 25, with the in-town bus running as usual. 

Acknowledging that returning to the community could be stressful for staff and students, the notice indicated that wellness supports would be made available through the division. 

No decisions had been made regarding Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs), though updates would be sent to parents when available. 

As well, air quality would continue to be monitored and outdoor activities involving students would be restricted or cancelled as necessary. 

In an interview on Friday, May 26, associate principal Kara King said the transition back to school routine is going very well and the students were settling in nicely. 

“Not all of our families have returned from wherever they were sheltering, but as each day goes by, the attendance is returning to more of a normal,” she said. 

“The students certainly seem to be happy to be back and are adjusting well into a routine.” 

King said some families travelled quite far in order to find accommodations during the evacuation, so those who have not returned are likely taking an extended weekend. 

She said the school did not look into alternative arrangements for the students to continue their classes because the evacuation was relatively short, pointing out that May 19 was an alternate day for Swan Hills School and May 22 was a holiday. 

Had the evacuation gone on longer, those arrangements would have been made, King added. 

She said there is definitely a feeling of gratitude to the community and the members of the emergency services who battled the wildfire. 

“I think everybody is just happy to be back in the community and back in their homes,” King said. 


Kevin Berger,

Barry Kerton,