Alberta declares early start to wildfire season due to warm and dry weather

Click to play video: '2024 Alberta wildfire season starts early'
2024 Alberta wildfire season starts early
The minister of Forestry and Parks is looking for funding for 100 additional wildland firefighters, and is also setting up training and testing for local volunteers to help fight fires this season. Sarah Ryan has the details – Feb 20, 2024

The Alberta government has declared an early start to the 2024 wildfire season.

The season traditionally has run from March 1 to Oct. 31, but Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen says it’s now underway — 10 days earlier than usual.

Loewen says the impacts of the record 2023 wildfire season showed the importance of a collective approach when dealing with disaster.

He says since Alberta is experiencing warmer than normal temperatures and below-average precipitation in many areas of the province it has led to a heightened wildfire risk.

Click to play video: 'Wildland firefighters’ union worried about 2024 season'
Wildland firefighters’ union worried about 2024 season

Loewen says the earlier start will allow the province to better direct resources to new and existing wildfires.

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Those measures include the use of the fire ban and restriction system to help reduce human-caused wildfires in response to hazardous conditions.

“We will do whatever is necessary to help Albertans and their communities stay safe from the impacts of wildfire,” Loewen told a news conference Tuesday.

“I want to encourage Albertans to remain vigilant and recreate responsibly.”

Loewen also said a permit is now required for any burning in the forest protection area. Fire bans are likely to follow.

“We’re going to be more proactive (on fire bans) than we were last year. I think we’re going to be more prepared than we were last year,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire: Officials remind people heading out for long weekend about fire and OHV bans'
Alberta wildfire: Officials remind people heading out for long weekend about fire and OHV bans

Whitecourt Fire Chief Brian Wynn said his department is bracing for another busy wildfire season after last year’s record-breaking one. During the 2023 season, 1,092 wildfires burned a record 2.2-million hectares. That’s about 10 times the five-year average.

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“We were crazy busy. It was our record year for hours,” Wynn said. “I think we spent 3,000 hours for our members outside our community. We responded to Parkland County, Edson, Fox Creek, and then we were changing out crews up in the territories as well.

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“Luckily we could give that response. But also, while all these people are out of town, our risk is still high and we still have to mitigate everything — accidents, fires, everything else that’s still happening in our community. Plus, our community hosted thousands of evacuees so we had way more people in town,” Wynn said.

“We’re kind of mentally preparing (for 2024). It’s going to be a busy year. Being proactive with the public education of FireSmart – what can residents do?”

A total of 54 new fires and those remaining from last year continue to burn in the province.

Click to play video: 'Alberta communities who faced wildfire threat earlier this year now welcoming N.W.T. evacuees'
Alberta communities who faced wildfire threat earlier this year now welcoming N.W.T. evacuees

The UCP’s 2024 budget will include funding to hire 100 new firefighters, which will result in five additional 20-person crews, the province said.

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That’s in addition to the 900 firefighters the province fielded in 2023, who are expected to be ready by April 15, said Loewen.

The new firefighters, if approved, won’t be dedicated to any particular area.

“If we’re successful and we do receive 100 new firefighters, they’ll be configured into unit crews, which are 20-person crews,” said Bernie Schmitte, executive director of Alberta Wildfire. “They come with more equipment and larger capacity to deal with fires than the four-person heli-tac crews.

“So, they’ll be put to work fighting those fires, assisting the initial attack crews and bringing fires to a state of being held a lot quicker. That’s the goal there,” Schmitte said.

He explained that out of the approximately 430 firefighting staff and support staff, about half want to return to the job every season. He estimated about 25 per cent seek work or promotions elsewhere.

He said in Alberta, all the firefighters who have worked for Alberta Wildfire in the past have an opportunity to file an expression of interest to be hired again the next season.

“We have a significant number of people that come back to work for us every year,” Schmitte said.

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

Loewen says he has an open-door policy with the municipalities and Alberta fire chiefs and that he’s met with both several times.

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The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association is extremely concerned that this wildfire season will mirror last year’s.

“Time is running short for meaningful discussions and planning from a multi-jurisdictional, multi-level government approach… with respect to this year’s upcoming fire season,” AFCA president Randy Schroeder said at the end of January.

In an open letter, the AFCA urgently called for disclosure of the provincial government’s wildfire preparedness strategy.

The AFCA was asking for additional resources, increased training capacity, equipment, aerials and for the establishment of a provincial fire services advisory committee to help develop a dedicated provincial strategy to better manage and mitigate risks associated with wildfire seasons.

As of Feb. 15, Schroder said the fire chiefs had not met with the province since November and were still waiting for details of the provincial wildfire strategy.

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

The Opposition says the UCP is way behind and should have started planning, hiring and training months ago.

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“We are behind on training and staffing, and the UCP’s lack of preparation hampers our first responders’ ability to effectively handle wildfire, especially in an era when climate change is only going to make wildfire seasons more unpredictable,” said Heather Sweet, Alberta NDP critic for agriculture, forestry and rural economic development.

“The UCP needs to collaborate with the federal emergency management committee to create a federal firefighting task force and work with all orders of governments, civil society and Indigenous communities to prevent needless loss. We need year-round wildland firefighters to ensure there are ready and trained boots on the ground for (the) start of every wildfire season.”

But Loewen said the firefighter recruitment process has been going on for months.

“That’s been very successful because we’ve had a record number of applicants,” he said Tuesday. “So, we’re feeling good about that. I think there’s always firefighters that go from province to province, territory to territory, depending on where they want to live or where they want to fight fire. And we want to make sure that we keep as many of the good, experienced firefighters as possible and actually the new recruits too,” Loewen said.

“We want to make sure we have that continuing training and recruitment process that helps us into the future.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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