‘Creeping death’: Alberta farmers band together, protect homes from wildfires

While thousands of Albertans fled their homes from raging wildfires, some stayed behind to protect their homes from wildfires. As Laura Krause reports, some believe more help is needed.

Brendan Smith’s car was packed and ready to go.

Surrounded by flames, smoke and an ominous orange glow, the farmer from High Prairie, Alta., was on the verge of evacuating – leaving his home and neighbours behind.

“I was ready, but I didn’t want to leave our house,” Smith told CityNews. “I just felt for all of our neighbours. You heard of the community getting together to help everyone out, but I just couldn’t leave.”

Dozens of wildfires remain active in central Alberta, causing damage and forcing thousands to leave their homes.

High Prairie was one of several Alberta communities caught between fires – with at least one of them deemed out of control when Smith was preparing to leave.

“I hope I never see anything like this again, but it was the most breathtaking thing you had ever seen,” he said. “It looked like you were surrounded by it, and it just kept coming. You saw it in the horizon building towards it, and it just felt like creeping death, but you just had to hold on and fight for it.”

With firefighting resources stretched thin – Alberta did receive help from out-of-province wildland firefighters from Ontario and Quebec over the weekend – Smith and his neighbours were forced to take matters into their own hands.

“It would catch the ditches, and you’ve never seen fire move so fast,” Smith described the flames advancing towards their properties. “It felt like the world was covered in gasoline.”

While his car may have been packed, he didn’t get in.

“We knew it would come in our direction, so we ended up working with our neighbours, and it went from there.”


Instead, Smith got into an excavator and got a first-hand look at the destructive power of the flames.

“I saw it all from an excavator window, just working away, trying to push trees over, dig up dirt, till up dirt, just block everything from spreading,” he said. “It was the scariest time you’ve ever seen.”

High Prairie wildfire in May 2023. (Submitted by: Brendan Smith)

Community fights fire together

But he also witnessed something else: a community banding together in a time of need and desperation.

“Around our community, you all help each other out,” he said. “It’s a very tight-knit place, and as time goes on, it sometimes feels like everyone isn’t as built together. But in a time like this, I’ve seen some pretty cool and brave people who helped and got together. We met up with our neighbours and went into their land trying to build some fire breaks and just doing what we could.

“It was really heartwarming and amazing to see, it made me really proud of where I’m from, that’s for sure.

“I saw people hauling water, people bringing us sandwiches and food, and free diesel. With the way the world is right now with the price of diesel, people were just giving it away for free. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”

Burn marks on father’s face

Smith says his father suffered minor injuries while helping dig fire breaks.

“My dad, the ‘dozer he was running, it didn’t have a cab, it was just an open-air cab, and he has burn marks on his face from the flames,” he said. “He was right in there in the flames with the ‘dozer. One of the toughest things I’ve ever seen. One of the bravest things I’ve ever seen. I gained way more respect for my dad that I didn’t even know I could gain.”

Alberta declared a provincial state of emergency over the weekend, with nearly 30,000 people evacuated from their homes. Roughly 15 evacuation orders remain in place.

The province is urging anyone living in an evacuation zone not to stay behind.

High Prairie wildfire in May 2023. (Submitted by: Brendan Smith)

High Prairie was placed on a three-hour evacuation alert Saturday, which was upgraded to a 60-minute evacuation alert later in the day. It was cancelled Sunday.

“It started getting really smoky in town around Friday evening, and Saturday is when the news started breaking that it would start moving northwest towards us, and the wind wasn’t in our favour,” Smith recalled.

“I never thought it would happen to me.”

‘It was just the perfect storm’

While Smith made the decision to stay back and battle a blaze that was threatening his community, he does not blame the government for a lack of recourses.

The province was recently criticized for cutting, in 2019, a program of 63 elite firefighters trained specifically to tackle wildfires.

“I understand where a lot of their resources went,” said Smith. “There are a lot of other big fires, and some around communities. I heard there was ice still on the lake, that they couldn’t use the water bombers, it was just the perfect storm. Everyone had their hands tied.”

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