High Level students learn more about the Chuckegg Creek fire

This week, during Fire Prevention Week, a number of students in High Level schools had an opportunity to learn more about the Chuckegg Creek fire and to share their own stories as the High Level Fire Department made classroom presentations throughout the community.

Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt said the goal was to get a chance to speak to as many children as possible, and make presentations to all classes by the end of the year.

“We want to have a chat with students on a couple fronts,” he said. “Kids have a lot of questions that they may not have gotten answered. We want to explain how we got to the point of needing to evacuate the town, what happened while they were evacuated, and some of the things we did to protect the community.

“We also wanted to explain a little bit about the fire – why it moved, and why it did what it did. I think, finally, the bigger piece of this is just to bring some closure to the students. The fire isn’t out, it’s still burning. But we’re trying to give some assurances to the students that the fire won’t affect the town or any of the other communities anymore.”

Schmidt said there is a certain amount of mistaken information in the community – particularly with children, who may not fully understand everything they hear. Because of this, it is important to be able to provide them with a trusted source of information directly.

“It’s comforting to hear from fire personnel about the fire and how it’s not able to hurt them,” he said. “Talk is good, and I think this opens the conversation up for the kids to talk about their concerns and anxieties and get things off their chests.”

Michelle Metacat, an Educational Assistant at Spirit of the North School, said the presentation was important to students on a number of different levels.

“It really fosters a relationship between the school and a community agency,” she said. “It’s good for our kids to be able to see the people who are working in emergency response roles throughout the community.”

Schmidt said he has been encouraging children to talk about their thoughts and feeling regarding the fire with their family and friends, while making sure they get all the facts and understand exactly what happened. By far, the biggest concern has been around the current status of the fire.

“They ask if it is still burning,” he said. “We get that one every session. The direct answer is yes. But we explain to them how the outer edges of the fire have been extinguished and where it is burning – in the centre – has nowhere to go. These are just areas where Alberta Forestry is still getting to.”

Another quest they are often asked is how the fire started. Schmidt said he has heard a number of different stories – from a discarded cigarette to arson – but the fact is the fire was the result of a lightning strike.

“There’s lots of storytelling, too, which we always take the time to listen to,” said Schmidt. “It’s an important part of the healing process for these kids to be able to tell their story.

“For some of the kids, it was a great time. But for some of the kids, it was a traumatic experience having to pack up and take off.”

This may be particularly true for students who have families from Paddle Prairie who may have lost homes. Schmidt said it was import and talk about what happened down there.

Metacat said the presentation could help the students in dealing with some of the fear or uncertainty they may have felt in the summer.

“It gave them a good idea that the Town of High Level has emergency response plans in place,” she said. “The same as the school has emergency plans in place. So they don’t need to worry.”

One of the presentations involved the support of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) team. Three of the four members of the team were present during the Chuckegg Creek fire, and have personal experience to share with the students.

“When we got to a topic that may have been better-suited for them to answer, we let them take over and answer it,” said Schmidt. “It gave them some good, practical experience on presentations. It was great to have them there.”

Fire Prevention is on everybody’s mind in October. Traditionally, the messaging focuses on fire prevention in the home. And while those are important for the community, the week also presented an opportunity to explore the Chuckegg Creek fire in more detail.

“It was a traumatic experience for the whole community,” Schmidt said. “Whatever we can do to help the community heal, we are going to try and do it. Hopefully, it sets some concerns at ease for the spring wildfire season.”

“Next spring, when we see smoke – and we will – they don’t have to worry, because they know that everybody has an emergency response plan in place, and that the students will be taken care of,” said Metacat. “And that they just have to relax and let those people do their jobs and everything will be okay.”