Smoke offers some relief for Alberta firefighters in wildfire battle

Wildfire smoke rises above a forest by Highway 33, north of the Town of Swan Hill. (François Joly/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Wildfire smoke rises above a forest by Highway 33, north of the Town of Swan Hill. (François Joly/Radio-Canada - image credit)

While smoke from wildfires in Alberta has triggered a special air quality statement, provincial officials say it has also helped firefighters control wildfires.

"There's certainly a mixed story for firefighters when it comes to smoke," Christie Tucker, Alberta Wildfire information unit manager, said during a news conference Sunday afternoon.

"We haven't seen the kind of wildfire activity that we would have expected under the forecast conditions this weekend."

Between Friday morning and Sunday morning, the agency recorded five fires starting.

As of Sunday afternoon, 91 wildfires are burning in Alberta. Of the 84 wildfires burning inside forest protection areas, 23 are considered out of control.

"The smoke cover has led to lower fire activity," Tucker said, adding the smoke has had a cooling effect as it blocks out some sunlight.

But one downside is that visibility has been obscured.

"We haven't been able to truly get an accurate assessment of size on a number of the fires for a couple of days since the smoke cover has been thick," she said, adding that experts are monitoring the smoke at all times.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has forecasted rain and cooler temperatures for the first half of next week.

A break in the upper ridge is moving through the province on Sunday and bringing cooler air and more rain, which will be focused in central Alberta on Monday and Tuesday.

Over 500 fires have burned in the province to date this year, destroying over 940,000 hectares.

Evacuation zone navigation

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.

As evacuations continue, an official from the Alberta Emergency Management Agency cautioned the public from relying on information outside provincial and municipal guidance.

"We recently became aware of evacuees using online maps like Google or Apple Maps to navigate out of an evacuated zone," said Bre Hutchinson, executive director.

"Unfortunately, some of these maps are not updated and could lead residents into dangerous areas."

She advises Albertans to check for updates with local authorities or 511 Alberta, which provides updates on road closures and driving conditions.

Alberta Wildfire/Government of Alberta
Alberta Wildfire/Government of Alberta

There was some progress made in tackling the eagle complex — two wildfires in the vicinity of Fox Creek and the community of Little Smoky in the Municipal District of Greenview.

"The eagle complex got about a millimetre of rain over most of that fire — which is not a lot — but we'll take what we can get at this point," Derrick Forsythe, Alberta Wildfire information officer, said in an interview Sunday.

Forsythe said this has allowed crews to work on the perimeter of the fire.

"We're really thankful to most of Albertans who did take the extra care — the ones that went to the forest this weekend," he said.

"We didn't have a lot of new starts, normally this long weekend is a busy time for us every year because there's so many people out on the landscape."

Fox Creek RCMP announced Sunday that both the north and southbound lanes have reopened on Highway 43 from Fox Creek to Little Smoky, with a speed reduction to 80 km/hr.

The detachment also announced they would seek charges against a man who became stranded after trying to bypass a wildfire checkpoint on Friday.

Grizzly complex efforts

Firefighters continue to try to stop a set of out-of-control wildfires in north-central Alberta referred to as the grizzly complex.

It encompass three wildfires affecting Big Lakes County, including Swan River First Nation, East Prairie Métis Settlement, Driftpile Cree Nation, Sucker Creek First Nation as well as the Town of Swan Hills, 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.

Thunderstorm monitoring

"While showers will certainly be welcomed by firefighters, we monitor thunderstorms very carefully," Tucker said at a news conference Saturday.

Alberta Wildfire has said that lightning sensor fire centres across the fire protection area can detect where lightning has struck.

In response, the agency is able to send out patrols to investigate whether lightning may have started a wildfire.

Alberta Wildfire saw lightning strikes in both Edson and Grande Prairie on Saturday.

Smoke impact

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 Sunday afternoon, Environment Canada's Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) listed Edmonton's air quality at a 10+, or very high risk.

The conditions have respirologists like Dr. Shawn Aaron worried for people in western Canada.

"Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter and these are small dust-like particles," he said in an interview.

When these particulars are deeply inhaled, they can cause lung inflammation and injury.

"The N95 mask is probably the one tool that we have in our toolbox that can help people ... because that will block out 95 per cent of respirable particles," he said.

Martin Trainor/CBC
Martin Trainor/CBC

The smoke has been a challenge for evacuees like Paula and David Bird, who have set a camp near an evacuation centre in Flatbush with their granddaughter Kaswayla Bird and 11 other family members.

Over 200 evacuees have registered at the centre.

The family had to leave their home after an immediate evacuation order was put in place on Thursday for the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River, which includes residents along Old Smith Highway.

David Bird has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and with mounting hotel costs, the situation has been taxing. he said he was wheezing during the night but Sunday brought some relief.

"I'm not gonna leave my family just to go stay where it's clear ... I'd rather be with my family."

High Level evacuation hub

Crystal McAteer, mayor of High Level, said in an interview Sunday that her town of 4,000 residents has become an oasis for evacuees.

Since the wildfires forced community evacuations over two weeks ago, High Level doubled its temporary population by accepting an estimated 4,000 people fleeing wildfires.

"We still probably have approximately 2,000 [evacuees] in the town," McAteer said. The town has a thousand rooms on offer with overflow in the local arena, curling rink, friendship centre and campsites.

"It is putting a huge tax upon our town team because we're a small team and they have been working around the clock and it also puts an overload on our animal shelter or our restaurants."

High level has been lobbying both the province and the federal government for an evacuation centre. McAteer said they were denied a federal grant for not meeting requirements in alignment with the government's net zero policy.

WATCH | Smoke is so thick that some water bombers can't fly: 

The mayor is also the latest local government official to call for the postponement of the provincial election on May 29.

"The feeling right here is it isn't about the election ... the battleground is Calgary and southern Alberta," McAteer said.

"My personal feeling is it should have been postponed ... the whole province except for southern Alberta seems to be on fire."