Alberta Wildfire warns of extreme danger come spring 2024

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire shows off winter fires still burning, warns 2024 could be worse than last year'
Alberta wildfire shows off winter fires still burning, warns 2024 could be worse than last year
It may be the dead of winter, but an unprecedented number of wildfires from 2023 carried over, burning and smouldering underground. As Sarah Ryan explains, with little snowfall and low moisture expected in the coming months, there's a lot of fears going into spring that we'll see an even worse fire season in 2024 – Feb 7, 2024

The numbers are astonishing: In the middle of winter, Alberta wildland firefighters are battling 57 fires across the province.

It’s an unprecedented amount of burn. A dozen of those blazes started this year, but the remainder started in 2023 and continue to burn.

“We had over 60 wildfires that were carryover wildfires from the 2023 season, which is incredibly high compared to what we typically see,” explained Alberta Wildfire information officer Melissa Story.

Having this many fires carry over is not normal.

“Our five-year average is about six. So we’re sitting at 10 times as many as we usually see.”

Wildfires can burn into the ground, especially in boggy areas full of peat moss, smouldering for months or years after it first sparked.

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Some of the fires still burning from last year are doing just that, and the snow overtop is insulating instead of extinguishing it.

Alberta wildfire crews putting out hot spots at a 2023 carry over wildfire that’s burning deep into peat moss near Fox Lake, Alta. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. Global News

While the number of fires the province responded to in 2023 was actually slightly lower than the five-year average (1,088 in 2023 compared to an average of 1,107) the fires that did spark burned bigger than ever before.

When asked what’s causing this unprecedented number of winter fires, Story said: “We had a really hot, dry fall last year. We had unseasonably warm temperatures throughout the summer.”

“We had a record breaking wildfire season with 1,088 wildfires burning over 2.2 million hectares of land.”

While the majority of the 1,088 blazes Alberta Wildfire responded to between March 1 and Oct. 31 of last year were caused by some sort of human activity, the province said the top single cause was lightning: 35 per cent, or 381 wildfires, were sparked by it.

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However, when added all up, human activity accounted for 61 per cent of the blazes.

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More snow this winter will be helpful to add more moisture to the ground, the telltale sign for the 2024 wildfire season will be the amount of rain that falls in the spring — the most volatile time for a wildfire.

Unfortunately, things aren’t expected to improve. Story said Alberta is expected to see less rain than normal with warmer temperatures: a challenging combination.

Click to play video: 'Alberta fire chiefs call for province to release wildfire plan'
Alberta fire chiefs call for province to release wildfire plan

“We left the fall with very high to extreme fire danger and we’re probably going to be seeing that again in the spring,” Story explained.

“Once that snow melts and exposes dead, dry grass on the landscape, wildfires can start very easily and they can travel very quickly.”

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In response, Alberta is hiring 1,000 wildland firefighters and support staff, and this year they’ll be trained up and ready to go early – by April 15.

As the fire season progresses, more crews will be brought on as required. Fire season officially begins on March 1.

Wildland firefighter recruits began fitness testing back in January before moving to training at a provincial centre in Hinton. After that, crews will be sent out across Alberta’s forest protection area.

The forest protection area is 10 zones encompassing most of northern Alberta’s Boreal forest, as well as the western foothills and mountains outside the national parks. The province said the FPA represents the geographic areas concerned with the prevention and control of damage to forests from fire, insects, disease and other harmful agents.

It’s also the area in which Alberta Wildfire takes the lead on wildfires, as opposed to counties or individual communities.

Last year, because of the vast number of fires spreading at the same time and in so many places, Alberta called in help from other jurisdictions.

About 4,000 firefighters came from across Canada  and around the world.

The Alberta government recently took journalist to Fox Lake, a remote community in the far northwest corner of the province near High Level, to see fires still burning there.

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About 20 wildland firefighters continue to put out hotspots there from the Pasqua fire that devastated the community last summer.

“By exposing the heat in the ground, we’re lessening the hazards to the community as well as the smoke impacts,” said Victoria Ostendorf, a High Level forest area wildfire info officer.

Click to play video: 'Warm and dry conditions increase Alberta wildfire risk'
Warm and dry conditions increase Alberta wildfire risk

She said crews are using hand tools, heavy equipment and water trucks to fight the fires in the middle of winter.

“We are in drought-like conditions here still. We ended the 2023 season in drought-like conditions and we are expecting similar drought-like conditions come the spring.

She says that is one of the areas where the snow is insulating the underground bog fires.

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“Especially in this area, there’s deep layers of peat moss. So not only does it dig deep but it does travel as well, and emerge as a wildfire.”

Click to play video: '‘It’s time that we take charge and take ownership’: FireSmart Alberta'
‘It’s time that we take charge and take ownership’: FireSmart Alberta

Created in the 1990s, FireSmart helps property owners and municipalities prevent loss from wildfire by implementing protection and mitigation techniques.

The program provides education on how to better design yards and gardens in ways that keep fires from quickly spreading out of control.

Ostendorf said in other communities, FireSmart work is in full-swing.

“By thinning and mulching and pruning some of the trees in the wooded areas around communities.”

For now, everyone is waiting and watching, closely — hoping Mother Nature helps, instead of hurts, firefighting efforts.

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— With files from Karen Bartko and Nicole Siemens, Global News

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