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Alberta nears firefighting hiring target as ‘heightened’ wildfire season begins: minister

Click to play video: 'New Alberta Wildfire recruits prepare for fire season'
New Alberta Wildfire recruits prepare for fire season
WATCH ABOVE: (From April 8, 2024) Dozens of Alberta wildland firefighters-in-training took what they learned in the classroom out into the real world Monday, battling staged fires as the province prepares for what’s expected to be a challenging season ahead. Sarah Ryan reports – Apr 8, 2024

Alberta has already seen more wildfire starts this year than at the same point in last year’s devastating wildfire season and, according to Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen, the province is on track to meet hiring targets for more firefighters.

“I know Albertans are feeling nervous as we head further into the 2024 wildfire season,” Loewen said at a news conference held at the Alberta legislature on Thursday morning.

The news conference is the first of weekly news conferences the provincial government plans to hold this wildfire season as dry conditions stoke fears about the potential severity of this year’s wildfire season.

“We hear your desire for more frequent communication regarding wildfire risk, status and impacts throughout the province,” Loewen said.

He noted that about 30 to 35 more employees are being hired for wildfire season by the province each week and that he expects to have all planned crews hired and ready to work by the government’s own May 15 deadline.

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Alberta Wildfire information unit manager Christie Tucker noted that the province’s firefighter-hiring efforts are currently 39 per cent ahead of where they were at this point last year.

She said more than 500 people, existing and new employees, have already received wildfire training in Hinton this year, at a centre she described as “the envy of the country.”

“We have aimed at majority hired by mid-April and we are there,” Tucker said. “Our next milestone is May 15 and we’re well on track.”

The 2024 Alberta budget includes an additional $151 million over the next three years for the base budget of preventing and fighting wildfires, ahead of what is expected to be another challenging fire season.

Earlier this year, the provincial government announced the budget would include funding to hire 100 new seasonal wildland firefighters, which will result in five additional 20-person crews.

That’s in addition to the 900 firefighters the province fielded in 2023.

Loewen said in addition to current regular, permanent, full-time staff, Alberta now has 297 “government wildland firefighters,” 280 “fire-tac firefighters” and 172 “seasonal support staff.”

Wildfire risk still present despite cold temperatures

With much of Alberta experiencing snowfall and colder-than-normal April temperatures this week, Tucker said she wanted to remind Albertans that the wildfire risk remains.

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“The long-term drought conditions we’ve experienced in Alberta mean that it is still possible for trees and grasses to burn, particularly in the high winds that we’ve been seeing,” she said. “We started this year with 64 wildfires still burning from last year. Firefighters are entering the spring with a heavier fire load than usual.”

Tucker added that so far in 2024, more than 500 hectares of land have burned in Alberta because of wildfires, noting that is about 400 hectares more than at the same time last year.

She said that as of Thursday morning, there were 50 fires burning in Alberta’s Forest Protection Area.

“At this time, … (the fires are) largely human-caused or under investigation because we haven’t had much lightning,” Tucker said, adding “human-caused” fires include arson but are mostly the result of unintentional actions like not putting a campfire out properly.

She said Alberta has a category of fires termed “incendiary,” which includes cases of arson and mischief. In 2023, 11 per cent of wildfires in the province were deemed “incendiary.”

Loewen said over the past five years, 67 per cent of wildfires in Alberta have been caused by people.

Loewen also spoke about the early risk and the government’s decision to declare a start to Alberta’s wildfire season earlier than normal this year. He said, however, that early preparations are allowing the province to “come at this wildfire season very strong.”

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“All wildfires are currently being held, are under control or are extinguished.”

For the most up-to-date information on wildfires in Alberta, you can click on the Alberta wildfire dashboard.

–with files from Karen Bartko, Global News

Click to play video: 'Alberta preparing for the worst ahead of 2024 wildfire season'
Alberta preparing for the worst ahead of 2024 wildfire season

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