After a record year for wildfires in the province, followed by what has been an unseasonably mild and dry winter thus far, Alberta Wildfire is already preparing for what could be another year of fires beginning earlier than usual.
“We’re coming into this wildfire season with less snow on the ground, less precipitation and higher temperatures than we typically see for this time of year,” said Alberta Wildfire community relations coordinator Melissa Story.
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While more snow this winter will be helpful, Story said the telltale sign for the 2024 wildfire season will be the amount of rain that falls in the spring — the most volatile time for a wildfire.
“Once we have that dry, dead vegetation on the landscape, a fire can start very easily and spread quickly. So the rain really helps for getting grass growing and getting the trees growing so that we can fight those wildfires.”
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The hope for rain comes after the province had the worst fire season on record, in terms of area burnt.
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“We had a hot, dry spring in the start of 2023, which drove up the wildfire danger and led to most of the major wildfires that we had in the spring of last year,” she said, adding 60 fires from 2023 are still burning and have carried over into this year.
Wildfires can burn into the ground, especially in boggy areas full of peat moss, smouldering for months or years after it first sparked.
However, having five dozen fires carry over is not normal. Story said typically, only a handful of big blazes do that.
“Wildfires of really large sizes that are over 200,000 hectares — like we see in the province right now — will burn for months, even years. We go back to check them and ensure that they’re still being held or they are ready to be extinguished,” Story said.
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While the number of fires the province responded to was actually slightly lower than the five-year average (1,088 in 2023 compared to an average of 1,107) the fires that did spark burned bigger than ever before.
“Our 2023 wildfire season was the most hectares burned on record,” Story said, adding over 2.2 million hectares was burned. “The closest second that we have to that it was 1.3 million hectares being burned in 1981.”
“The number of wildfires was pretty typical for us here in Alberta. However, the hectares burned was about ten times our five-year average.”
While the majority of the 1,088 blazes Alberta Wildfire responded to between March 1, 2023, and Oct. 31, 2023, were caused by some sort of human activity, the province said the top single cause was lightning: 35 per cent, or 381 wildfires, were sparked by it.
However, when added all up, human activity accounted for 61 per cent of the blazes.
The top human cause was resident, with 176 fires. The province said this category includes activities like burning debris or grass without a permit, or outside of permit conditions. Agricultural burning is a separate category and the province said 45 fires were attributed to that.
There were also 125 incendiary fires in 2023 and of those, 92 were determined to be arson, which Story said was average. The incendiary category also includes fires started by fireworks and exploding targets.
Recreation such as campfires caused 97 fires across Alberta, while another 85 were sparked by power lines, the province said.
So what will happen this year?
“It will all depend what the weather decides to do for us. Environment Canada is predicting a mild February, so we are preparing for an early start to fire season in 2024,” Story said.
Alberta Wildfire is currently recruiting wildland firefighters and other season crews for the upcoming season.
“We will get them trained up and positioned across the province, ready for an early start again this year.”
Last year, the wildfire season began a month early in Alberta.
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Story said wildland firefighter recruits will begin fitness testing in the next few weeks of January before undergoing training at a provincial centre in Hinton. After that, crews will be sent out across Alberta’s forest protection area.
“This year it’s a little bit expedited. We would typically have them ready for April and they will be prepared early this year.”
The forest protection area is 10 zones encompassing most of northern Alberta’s Boreal forest, as well as the western foothills and mountains outside the national parks. The province said the FPA represents the geographic areas concerned with the prevention and control of damage to forests from fire, insects, disease and other harmful agents.
It’s also the area in which Alberta Wildfire takes the lead on wildfires, as opposed to counties or individual communities.
Even now in the winter, the province is asking people in those areas to be careful about winter burning, something that’s not typically a concern.
“We ask that you wait until there’s at least 15 centimetres of snow on the ground. We know that permits are not required right now, but it’s just safe burning practices.”
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