Rainy forecast offers hope to subdue Alberta wildfires

A wildfire is seen near the Municipal District of Greenview and forms part of the Eagle Complex, along with another wildfire northeast of the town of Fox Creek. (Alberta Wildfire/Government of Alberta - image credit)
A wildfire is seen near the Municipal District of Greenview and forms part of the Eagle Complex, along with another wildfire northeast of the town of Fox Creek. (Alberta Wildfire/Government of Alberta - image credit)

Hot and dry conditions are challenging Alberta firefighters this weekend, but officials say the forecast in the coming days offers some hope.

In a Saturday afternoon update, Alberta Wildfire information unit manager Christie Tucker said they're anticipating a few days of cooler temperatures and precipitation.

The agency's wildfire map shows a scattering of areas across the province in red and pink which indicates extreme fire danger.

"We'd like a nice, steady rain for a few days," Tucker said. "That would help us a significant amount — something that will soak into the forest floor."

This change in weather conditions will assist firefighters and help the agency in deploying their resources, Tucker said.

A fire ban and an off-highway vehicle restriction is currently in place across the province's forest protection area.

A dozen parks and recreation areas have been closed, and several other sites are being closely monitored. The list of closures will continue to be updated online.

At the same time, thick wildfire smoke has settled over much of Alberta, prompting a special air quality statement across most of the province that advises people to avoid being outside due to the health risks of the smoke. On Saturday afternoon, Environment and Climate Change Canada's Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) listed Edmonton's air quality at a 10+, or very high risk.

Tucker said there are currently 91 wildfires in Alberta's forest protection area, and 25 of those are out of control.

She also underlined just how severe this year's wildfire season has been, with 842,000 hectares burned so far.

"Last year, on this day, we [had] burned just 459 hectares. Not 459,000 — 459," Tucker said.

"So this year's total is nearly 2,000 times last year's."

Paige Parsons/CBC
Paige Parsons/CBC

Josee St-Onge, Alberta Wildfire information officer, said in an interview with CBC Saturday morning that fire crews are continuing their work.

"Good progress on many of these wildfires, building containment lines and fire guards around communities, but we're expecting another challenging day today," she said

"It's definitely going to be a long haul. Fires that are this size burn very intensely."

Environment and Climate Change Canada is projecting rainfall for the start of next week. with temperatures dipping down to around 20 C.

This weekend, temperatures remain 10 C above seasonal.

While a brief respite in weather conditions will help, St-Onge said it will take a prolonged response to get the current wildfire situation under control.

"There's definitely a lot of work ahead. We're only in mid-May and a wildfire season typically goes [until] October," she said.

"So it's definitely a critical situation out there."

As part of the special air quality statement, Environment and Climate Change Canada says people with lung disease or heart disease, older adults, children, pregnant people, and people who work outdoors are at higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by wildfire smoke.

The agency advises people to wear a well-fitted respirator-type mask if they must go outside to prevent inhaling fine particles in smoke.

Evacuation orders due to wildfires remain in effect for about 17 communities across central and northern Alberta. Nearly 10,700 people are waiting for the all-clear to return home, the provincial officials said Saturday.

WATCH | Fox Creek residents talk about outpouring of community support amid uncertainty 

The situation has been taxing for Fox Creek residents Dwight Struab, his daughter Cheyenne Straub and their two dogs. They had to evacuate, and have been staying at a motel in Whitecourt, Alta., for two weeks.

"There's been a lot of help from the community and everybody's been really supportive with us," Dwight Struab said.

"They've gone well above and beyond the call of duty for us."

Fox Creek fire chief Brian Davidson said Saturday that he's eager to get people back home — he's among the town residents who are displaced. But he has to ensure conditions are safe enough first.

Martin Trainor/CBC
Martin Trainor/CBC

"Hopefully with the change, we actually get some precipitation, and by Monday, if things go well, we can start bringing people back," he said.

"We want to make sure we have that moisture into the ground accurately. I want to be able to see it before we start making any decisions for re-entry."

An estimated 275 structures have been damaged by wildfires so far in Fox Lake, East Prairie Métis Settlement, Drayton Valley and other communities.

As of Saturday, more than 1,700 Alberta firefighters are working on the ground, and more than 1,100 additional people have been brought in to help from elsewhere in Canada and the U.S.