The Alberta government has issued a fire ban that covers about 60 per cent of the province, in hopes of slowing the start of wildfire season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fire ban was announced Tuesday afternoon and includes the Forest Protection Area, provincial parks and protected areas. The use of off-highway vehicles is also banned on Crown land in the Forest Protection Area.
The bans come into effect on Wednesday.
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen called the bans “unprecedented steps” at the start of wildfire season, which typically peaks in Alberta in late April through May.
Wildfire season in Alberta started on March 1, one month earlier than any other province.
“Do your part in preventing human-caused wildfires,” Dreeshen said.
“We don’t need the added burden of a human-caused wildfire.”
There are a few exceptions to the restrictions, Dreeshen said. Indigenous people can use OHVs on public land for traditional purposes. In addition, the use of OHVs on private lands, for industrial use and by emergency responders is also permitted.
Additional funding to fight fires
Dreeshen announced that the province will allocate an additional $5 million to hire and train 200 more wildfire firefighters. The seasonal staff will mainly focus on ground support, he said.
Up to an additional $20 million will also be available to increase funding to the FireSmart program , Dreeshen said. The program helps to reduce wildfire risk through education, training, emergency planning and by creating fire buffers around communities.
Preparing for multiple and concurrent disasters
Officials said the measures are necessary as the province plans to deal with multiple and concurrent disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, floods and tornadoes.
“We don’t expect that Mother Nature will give us a break this spring and summer,” said Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
Schreiber said the Provincial Operations Centre is currently responding to the day-to-day issues related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. To ensure they have the ability to respond to other possible disasters, the POC has been reinforced by the creation of a Pandemic Response Planning Team, which is responsible for coordinating the province’s medium- to long-term response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This will allow the POC to focus on “other potential hazards, including the usual season risks in the coming weeks.”
“I believe that we are as ready as we can be for the upcoming disaster season,” Schreiber said.
“It will not be without its challenges and we’re going to need all Albertans to look out for one another and to continue to behave responsibly and comply with the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health and the restrictions that the minister outlined this morning.”
The AEMA has also created an evacuation framework, which Schreiber said has been shared with all municipalities so they can begin making plans should their communities need to evacuate because of a disaster.
“Most municipalities work with their neighbouring municipalities in order to have some place for their evacuees to go and in many cases, those facilities can actually abide by the chief medical officer of health’s direction in terms of social distancing.”
Schreiber said they will also look at the possibility of putting evacuees up in hotels and motels that have been designated isolation facilities.
Physical distancing measures amid wildfire season
Dreeshen said his ministry has been working closely with Alberta Labour and Alberta Health Services to make sure that working protocols are in place to follow the province’s current physical distancing measures.
He said these would apply to the wildfire camps and incident command centres.
“The safety of our workers is paramount so we are making sure that that actually happens. It’s something that will be an adjustment,” he said, “but I think it’s something that we need to make sure that our wildfire fighters are safe so they can do their important work.”
Dreeshen said bag lunches, rather than having staff eat a mess hall, is one of the measures being looked at.
A province-wide ban has not been issued at this time but that decision could be reevaluated.
“A province-wide fire ban, which would include the remainder 40 per cent of province, would hamper municipalities’ ability to allow for essential agriculture burning,” Dreeshen explained.
“Should this decision need to be re-evaluated later on, we will do so. But not at this time.”
The province is also increasing the fines people could face for breaking the rules. Dreeshen said fines are being doubled from $300 to $600 for those found breaking the fire ban. Those not complying with the OHV restrictions could face fines of up to $1,200.
Anyone found to have caused a wildfire could also be on the hook for the costs of fighting the fire, the province said. Last year, more than $600 million was spent fighting wildfires in Alberta.
Officials with Alberta government said nearly 1,000 wildfires burned more than 880,000 hectares in the province in 2019.
The Chuckegg Creek wildfire near High Level forced roughly 5,000 people from their homes. It was over 350,000 hectares in size and burned out of control for 70 days last summer.
The ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said more than 70 per cent of Alberta wildfires were caused by humans last year.
The bans and restrictions will be in place until further notice.