Alberta to start wildfire season a month early

A wildfire burns about 15 kilometres from the Town of Jasper Thursday, July 9, 2015. Courtesy, Parks Canada

EDMONTON — Alberta is starting its wildfire season a month early after flames last year torched almost 5,000 square kilometres.

Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier says the extra time provided with the March 1 launch will ensure crews are prepared to respond quickly to any wildfires that break out in the early spring and through the year.

Carlier said the province is already considering how the mild, dry winter will affect the fire threat in the forest zone.

“While it is difficult to predict what weather conditions will be like in the weeks and months ahead, we know right now that there has been below-average snow and rainfall across much of Alberta over the past few months,” Carlier said Tuesday.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and be ready to respond if and when we are needed.”

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Alberta’s get-ready-early approach comes from painful experience.

The province has been starting its wildfire season a month early since the year after the May 2011 fire that destroyed part of the town of Slave Lake and forced thousands of people from their homes.

READ MORE: Two years later, cause of Slave Lake fire still not known

Last year, there were 1,786 wildfires in Alberta — more than twice the 25-year average. Crews managed to contain 93 per cent of them within about a day and prevented flames from entering any communities.

The cost wasn’t cheap, though. Alberta spent $474 million on firefighting last year.

Carlier said it is prudent to be prepared.

“It really gives us a leg up on what we anticipate might be again a very busy fire season.”

READ MORE: One of Alberta’s busiest wildfire seasons in 25 years ends

Hot, dry weather also made 2015 a bad year for wildfires in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Fires north of Prince Albert, Sask., forced about 13,000 people from their homes and burned 17,000 square kilometres of timber. The government’s response to the fires cost about $100 million.

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Saskatchewan normally starts its wildfire season on April 1. This year the province plans to bring some aircraft and crews into service earlier than usual to ensure full preparation for the 2016 season.

“The Ministry of Environment will be ready to respond to wildfires when the season starts,” said Denis Renaud of Saskatchewan’s wildfire management branch.

“With generally warmer temperatures and below-normal snowfall over much of the northern half of Saskatchewan so far this winter, the ministry is preparing for the possibility of an early start to the coming wildfire season.”

IN PHOTOS: Wildfires burn in northern Saskatchewan

The results of a review into how Saskatchewan handled the 2015 wildfire season are to be made public soon, he said.

B.C. recorded more than 1,836 wildfires last year that burned 2,804 square kilometres. The firefighting bill was estimated at $290 million.

READ MORE: A look at B.C.’s wildfire fighting costs this year

The province starts its wildfire season in May. An official said it is too early to predict how weather conditions will affect B.C. forests this year.

There were so many wildfires last year that the three provinces brought in crews from other countries to help out. Saskatchewan also called in Canadian Army units.

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