Fire chief asks for Edmontonians’ help ahead of wildfire season

Click to play video: 'Dry conditions prompt early Alberta fire bans, Edmonton council pushes for further restrictions'
Dry conditions prompt early Alberta fire bans, Edmonton council pushes for further restrictions
WATCH: Municipalities in the Edmonton area are starting to roll out fire bans and advisories. As above-seasonal temperatures and a lack of precipitation continue to present dry conditions in Alberta, some Edmonton councillors are wondering when the city will follow suit with restrictions. Kabi Moulitharan reports. – Apr 11, 2024

Edmonton’s fire chief says the department is ready for the “potentially difficult summer that’s ahead,” but he’s asking residents for their help to reduce fire risk.

“In Edmonton and surrounding areas, significant grass fires came close to communities, and many occurred right within our city limits,” Joe Zatylny said. “These fires encroached upon buildings and put a strain on firefighting resources.”

The fire chief said Tuesday that “should a wildfire happen in the city of Edmonton, we are prepared.”

“It would be an incredibly disastrous situation when we’re evacuating the city, of course … but there are times where we may need to evacuate communities,” he said.

“We always recommend that 72-hour kit, being prepared so that if you need to leave … we need you to evacuate for your own safety and be prepared for that.”

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Within Edmonton city limits, there have been 145 wildfires or grass fires since Jan. 1, 2024, the chief said.

“Over the last two weeks, looking at the dashboard, anywhere from five to 10 grass wildfires were happening per day. So we’re watching that closely,” Zatylny said.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton facilities and sporting event opening their doors to wildfire evacuees'
Edmonton facilities and sporting event opening their doors to wildfire evacuees

For context, between January and April 2023, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services responded to 156 wildfire or grass fire calls including extinguished outdoor fires, illegal burning and various sizes of brush, grass and wildland fires.

For the full year in 2023, there were 1,009 calls for “vegetation/wildland/brush/grass fires” and “outside fire” or fire pit complaints within city limits, EFRS said.

The fire chief said EFRS has been looking at strategies, approaches and plans and has strengthened partnerships with nearby municipalities, the University of Alberta and even school boards to look at potential evacuation facilities, fire monitoring technologies and firefighting resources.

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Last season, Edmonton hosted more than 12,000 wildfire evacuees from other regions. Zatylny said Edmonton is identifying other potential venues, including by working with school boards and the university, or other large buildings that could house or support large numbers of evacuees.

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He said EFRS will engage the Red Cross, if needed, to support a large number of evacuees.

Click to play video: 'Spree of grass fires break out in Edmonton’s river valley on Friday'
Spree of grass fires break out in Edmonton’s river valley on Friday

There’s also a greater focus on the 7,300 hectares of urban forest that make up the river valley, he said.

“The river valley is a high risk,” Zatylny said. “There’s a variety of reasons why encampments pose a fire risk and of course the open ignition sources, intentionally-set fires that are being used, whether it’s for cooking of heating, create all sorts of risks.”

Different types of equipment are needed to battle fires in the river valley, he explained, like aerial trucks and mobile units.

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“When it comes to the river valley, we’re continuously monitoring the river valley and relying on residents to phone in when they see an encampment.”

Click to play video: 'Downtown hotel patio damaged after fire in Edmonton’s river valley'
Downtown hotel patio damaged after fire in Edmonton’s river valley

Zatylny said the city is reviewing its approach and making changes, especially to how it monitors, prevents and battles fires in areas of dense vegetation. EFRS is using a wildland-urban risk mitigation strategy and the advice of a wildfire technician.

EFRS is partnering with Edmonton police to monitor the river valley with drones and with the University of Alberta Forestry department to monitor fire hazards.

EFRS has a process in place to request access to provincial aerial resources as well as private helicopter contractors, Zatylny said. The department is also providing crews with wildfire refresher training.

“It’s different when you’re structural firefighting as opposed to wildland firefighting,” Zatylny said. “You might need to dig in, the terrain is different, obviously, the risks and hazards when it come to trees burning, falling, vegetation — that can operate differently under firefighting conditions as opposed to a structure fire.

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“It really becomes a different type of challenge and when you’re operationally fighting a wildland fire, that fire can move great distances as opposed to fires spreading from home to home, typically is what we’ll see. It’s definitely different tactics, different training and different equipment.”

The fire department uses a dashboard and fire weather index to determine its approach and when to implement city-wide restrictions or bans.

“We’ll look at metrics like fuel load, concentration, humidity, the dryness of the fuels,” Zatylny said. “Weather index is, of course, humidity, high winds, of course, pose a problem.

“Lastly, the temperature. One of the key pieces around wildfire you’ll hear a lot of is ‘crossover,’ which is an extremely dangerous time when the temperature is actually higher than the humidity and that causes the spread of wildfire quite quickly.”

Click to play video: 'Experts urge Albertans to get FireSmart'
Experts urge Albertans to get FireSmart

But fire officials are also asking residents to do their part to lower the fire risk.

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“We need everyone to play a role to reduce the risk around their own homes and help us,” Zatylny said.

That means following all the rules regarding fireworks, fire bans restrictions and getting rid of smoking materials, he said.

“We want Edmontonians to know that their actions can have consequences on their own property, those of their neighbours, their community and across the city. There can also be consequences to human safety and, in some cases, human life,” Zatylny said.

It also means removing debris — or fire fuel — from around your home.

EFRS is encouraging everyone to become FireSmart, including homeowners, property owners and communities. The FireSmart program includes best practices, tips and tools to manage the risk of 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

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