Members of the Fort McMurray #468 First Nation were preparing to leave the community on Wednesday as an out of control wildfire burned roughly 25 kilometres south of the First Nation. The fire was brought under control that evening and the evacuation warning was cancelled.
But record-breaking heat, dry conditions and lightning strikes are keeping communities and emergency workers vigilant as nearly 80 per cent of land burned by wildfires this year have been in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.
Just after 3 p.m. Wednesday, residents of the First Nation were told to begin packing essential items in case an evacuation order was made. The nearby PetroCanada saw many people make a run on gas, food and other essential items. Josh Kaskamin, who lives on the reserve, said the day brought back memories of the 2016 Horse River Wildfire.
“Some people were panicking,” said Kaskamin. “My roommate has five cats and all we were thinking about was how to corral them and get them out safely.”
As of Friday, 85 wildfires have burned nearly 20,500 hectares in the region since wildfire season began on March 1. Current data shows 62 of those wildfires were caused by lightning strikes and 44 wildfires are active.
Across Alberta, 905 wildfires have burned nearly 25,800 hectares since March 1. There are 87 active wildfires in the province, with 15 listed as out of control. Last year, 700 forest fires burned 3,300 hectares.
Fort McMurray averaged 40.1 C on June 30 as a heat wave covered much of western Canada for the week. Environment Canada placed the previous record at 38.9 C on July 18, 1941.
"We're totally at the mercy of Mother Nature right now," said Lynn Daina, a wildfire information officer for the Fort McMurray area.
"For example, last year provincially 88 per cent of wildfires in Alberta were human caused and now it's totally flipped. It has a little but to do with ground conditions and whether or not we get any precipitation. Wind, heat and humidity all factor into what we put out as extreme fire danger."
The municipality says emergency workers, RCMP and Alberta Wildfire are working together on wildfire prevention and monitoring.
"With dry conditions, lightning weather fronts and sustained hot temperatures, we’ve been experiencing a higher-than-normal number of wildfires," said Jody Butz, regional fire chief and director of emergency management, in a statement. “Community members can expect wildfire smoke to continue to be present, but at this time there is no immediate risk to any of our communities."
Regardless of the cause of the increase in fires, people like Kaskamin are remaining vigilant in the event of any future evacuation orders.
“Everyone talks to everyone when these things happen,” said Kaskamin. “I was more worried about people here than people in town because of the location of the fire, but it does bring back trauma for some people.”
- with files from Laura Beamish and Vincent McDermott
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today