Alberta preparing for ‘the worst’ ahead of wildfire season

Click to play video: 'Alberta preparing for the worst ahead of 2024 wildfire season'
Alberta preparing for the worst ahead of 2024 wildfire season
The 2023 wildfire season was record-breaking in Alberta and after a mild winter, officials are preparing for the worst going into the spring of 2024. As Lisa MacGregor reports, Alberta Wildfire and communities have taken away lessons from last year that is helping them be better prepared. – Mar 11, 2024

Alberta Wildfire officials say they are preparing to be ready for “the worst that can happen” ahead of this year’s wildfire season, following last year’s record-breaking result.

Alberta Wildfire provided a tour of its coordination centre in Edmonton Monday afternoon, to showcase how staff are preparing for this year’s wildfires.

Workers at the centre are tasked with everything from coordinating person-power, equipment and accommodations, to prioritizing the movement of air tankers and other firefighting aircraft across Alberta.

“Probably the number one thing is having those resources ready and trained and in place for the beginning of the fire season,” said Cory Davis, manager of wildfire predictive services with Alberta Wildfire.

In 2023, 1,092 wildfires burned an unprecedented 2.2-million hectares of land in Alberta.

Click to play video: 'Alberta mountain towns prepare for expected busy wildfire season'
Alberta mountain towns prepare for expected busy wildfire season

So far this year, 40 wildfires have sparked in Alberta burning about 300 hectares. As of this time last year, there were 14 wildfires that burned about three hectares of land.

Story continues below advertisement

“That is why we are preparing as much as possible,” said Christie Tucker, information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire.

“We are just ensuring that we have all of the information where, we know where the fire danger is going to be elevated, we have additional crews, we’ve been told we have the resources we need and we’re going to make sure that we’re putting them in the right areas so that we’re ready to respond when we need to.

“We’re not on edge, we’re preparing. We’re getting ready.”

Alberta declared an early start to wildfire season this year, on Feb. 20, 10 days earlier than the usual start date of March 1.

“This year we are anticipating being majority staffed up and ready to go by mid-April,” said Tucker.

“We want to ensure that we have extra firefighters in place, we have extra crews trained, we have resources and aircraft. We have night-vision helicopters — we’re adding two to our fleet.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta increases wildfire budget ahead of what’s expected to be difficult 2024 season'
Alberta increases wildfire budget ahead of what’s expected to be difficult 2024 season

The early prep work comes amid low snowpack and higher-than-normal temperatures through the winter, according to wildfire officials.

Story continues below advertisement

Davis said staff members are tracking a number of environmental factors across Alberta, including snowpack levels, temperature and precipitation.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

Davis said some areas of the province ended last season with very high to extreme drought conditions.

He said even if Alberta receives 100 per cent of the normal amount of precipitation it usually does from the end of February to the beginning of April, parts of the province will still have very high to extreme drought conditions come April.

“We know we’re going to have fires. We have fires every year,” Davis said. “But the fires in a drought scenario do take more effort to control and extinguish so we’re very mindful of those conditions.”

Because of this, officials are preparing for above-normal temperatures and unpredictable precipitation in Alberta.

“Rainfall is one of the most difficult things to actually predict,” said Tucker.

“We know what the fuels are like on the ground right now… and we know how dry they are. But if we receive a significant amount of rainfall it will relieve the pressure on some of the areas for wildfire danger.

Click to play video: 'Wildfires prompt evacuation orders in Yellowhead, Parkland counties'
Wildfires prompt evacuation orders in Yellowhead, Parkland counties

Yellowhead County Mayor Wade Williams said the region is still recovering from last season’s onslaught. He said county staff are really busy and have been meeting with the public, provincial ministers and forestry officials.

Story continues below advertisement

“The meetings have just not ended and every single meeting we’re in these days turns into talking about fires.”

Last season was brutal for the county, which was the subject of several evacuations due to out-of-control wildfires that got too close for comfort.

“I’ve got a little bit of PTSD as well as a lot of the other folks do,” Williams said. “Whenever these alarms go off on our phones, everybody, right away, is: ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ … We had one go off here this winter for low power and it just makes you nervous as soon as you hear that alarm.”

Click to play video: 'Wildfire risk remains high in Yellowhead County'
Wildfire risk remains high in Yellowhead County

Williams says lessons have been learned from last year.

“The key is to get on these fires when they first get going before they get too hot or get going too large. I do believe that (Alberta Wildfire is) much better prepared than last year and we are, as well, much better prepared than last year.

Story continues below advertisement

“I’m certainly hoping we’re better prepared. We’re definitely nervous.

“We seriously don’t want to have to go through what we went through last year,” the mayor said. “We had to evacuate multiple areas … I just hope we don’t have to got through that. As well as try to keep people’s property safe, that was a big one. We ended up losing 36 homes in Yellowhead County, but it could have been much worse.”

The county has been training fire crews, educating the public on FireSmart, and has all its equipment, including sprinkler systems, ready to go, Williams said.

“I’ve been involved in emergency response for many years, and every single time there is an emergency, communication is always number one — or lack of communication — communicating with different agencies … It’s always front and centre and we’ve never figured out how to completely solve that problem.

Alberta’s 2024 provincial budget laid out a $2-billion contingency for emergencies, about a third less than what is estimated to have been spent last year, when many communities in the province dealt with wildfires and other disasters.

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

With files from Emily Mertz, Global News


Sponsored content