Alberta saw average wildfire season in 2021, despite record temperatures

·2 min read
Aaron Salus captured this shot of a water bomber working to put out a large fire along Highway 1 east of Dead Man's Flats, Alta. (Submitted by Aaron Salus - image credit)
Aaron Salus captured this shot of a water bomber working to put out a large fire along Highway 1 east of Dead Man's Flats, Alta. (Submitted by Aaron Salus - image credit)

While B.C and Saskatchewan dealt with raging wildfires this year, Alberta had a relatively average year.

Despite heat waves that gripped much of the province throughout summer, a combination of luck and good fire management helped Alberta have an average number of wildfires that did not cause as much severe damage and destruction as in neighbouring provinces.

Mike Flannigan, a fire-science research chair at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., attributes Alberta's difference to a lack of fires in May.

"May is our busiest month in Alberta ... but May was actually near normal and actually wetter than normal in much of Alberta, so in May the weather was quiet," Flannigan told CBC's Edmonton AM on Tuesday.

This year Alberta has had 1,142 wildfires. The provincial five-year average is 1,018, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

There have been 592 wildfires this year in Saskatchewan, more than double that province's five-year average of 284.

B.C. has seen 360 more fires than the provincial average of 1,127.

Flannigan said wildfires normally begin in Alberta during the fifth month of the year due to dry and windy conditions. But that was not the case this year.

This year, Alberta and B.C. experienced record-breaking summer temperatures.

Alberta saw temperatures above 35 C for days, with some towns in B.C seeing them rise above 40 C.

In July, the southern B.C. village of Lytton recorded the hottest temperature in Canadian history at 49.6 C, days before it burned to the ground in a catastrophic fire.

Despite the record-high temperatures and prolonged dry conditions, Flannigan said fires were still under control in Alberta thanks to fire crews keeping initial fires under control.

"They happened, you know, in small-enough batches that they were able to put those fires out," he said.

He said firefighters are limited in communities and can only handle so many fires — "You get 100 fire starts. You don't have 100 crews to put up those fires."

But because the fires were few and far between, crews were able to manage them before things got out of hand, he said.

And it's all about extreme fire weather. In Alberta, it came later and wasn't as severe as in British Columbia.

Albertans were affected this year by smoke drifting in from B.C., Saskatchewan, and in some cases, from the United States.

Although Alberta saw relatively little fire activity this year and in 2020, Flannigan said with rising temperatures due to climate change, "we are going to see more fire. And yeah, we have to learn to live with fire."

More fires are expected in coming years, he said — and more smoke, too.

Want more on wildfires? Click here for CBC Edmonton's original podcast series World on Fire.

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