Despite snow on the ground and freezing temperatures, Alberta’s wildfire season officially started on Tuesday and the government is preparing for the season by hiring hundreds of staff including firefighters, weather specialists and fire behaviour analysts.
Alberta Wildfire says the percentage of man-made fires in the province has dropped, even with the increase in outdoor activity the past two summers due to COVID-19.
In 2020, 88 per cent of fires were caused by humans. That dropped to 62 per cent in 2021.
“We need to maintain that vigilance and improve upon the gains that we made last year so we can minimize the risk of wildfire,” said wildfire information officer Derrick Forsythe.
The fire season in Alberta runs March 1 to Oct. 31. The season used to start later but the province extended it in 2016.
“We determined we needed more time early on to get ourselves ready,” Forsythe said. “We found that in the spring is where we see most of our larger fires.”
Preparation includes the hiring of more than 600 firefighters and other staff like weather specialists and fire behaviour analysts. More than 120 fire lookout sites are used throughout the season — 100 are staffed while the rest use video surveillance.
Last year, Alberta saw about 1,300 wildfires that burned just over 55,000 hectares. Provincial data shows that while the number of fires was up last year, the fires weren’t as large and fewer hectares were burned.
According to Forsythe, 95 per cent of fires last year burned for fewer than 24 hours. Heading into this year’s season, three wildfires are currently active.
Forsythe said northern Alberta has seen 100 per cent of its expected winter precipitation while central and southern areas are slightly below, but spring rainfall plays a larger factor in the wildfire season.
“After the snow is gone in the springtime when the grass is dry from the fall and the winter, that’s when it’s the easiest to ignite,” he said.
Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire science at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, also highlighted the dangerous conditions that can be left behind after the snow melts.
“There’s a whole bunch of dead grass or dead organic material that makes it easy for a fire to start and spread. If you have ignition plus warm, dry and windy. You’ve got the right conditions and away we go.”
Flannigan said a wet and colder May helped minimize the risk last year. He noted that Alberta has an earlier fire season than other parts of the country.
“Alberta is unique,” he said. “We’re the only jurisdiction where May is the busiest month. The rest of Canada is June and July with the exception of British Columbia, which is July and August.”
Up-to-date information on active wildfires or fire risk can be found online.