After subdued summer, Alberta should brace for more wildfires this fall, experts say

·4 min read
Wildfire activity in Alberta has been escalating in recent days, driven by scorching temperatures and tinder-dry conditions.  (Alberta Wildfire/Facebook - image credit)
Wildfire activity in Alberta has been escalating in recent days, driven by scorching temperatures and tinder-dry conditions. (Alberta Wildfire/Facebook - image credit)

Dry, hot weather is elevating the risk of wildfires in communities across Alberta — and experts say the risk is expected to remain high, even after the province's wildfire season officially ends.

Wildfire activity in the province has been escalating in recent weeks, driven by scorching temperatures, tinder-dry conditions and lightning strikes.

"We're seeing this pattern extend well into September and maybe even beyond," said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University and senior research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

While long-term forecasts should be taken with "a grain of salt," Alberta should be prepared to extend its wildfire season for an "active fall" and keep firefighting crews on standby, Flannigan said in an interview.

"As long as this hot, dry weather continues, fire is going to be a problem. And if we get some wind events, fire could be a real problem."

Data shows Canada's wildfire seasons are growing longer and more severe. Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires across the globe and left Alberta's boreal forest particularly vulnerable.

What was once a predictable four-month season has now become extended, with fires burning in early spring, fall and winter.

The province says its ready to respond if needed this fall, but the union representing seasonal firefighters says the Alberta government is short-staffing its wildfire-fighting force.

Mae Anderson/CBC
Mae Anderson/CBC

There could be added pressure on frontline resources in the weeks ahead, said Natalie Hasell, a meteorologist for Environment Canada.

Drought-like conditions have hit the Prairies hard. Some communities have gone without any precipitation for weeks -- and dry lightning storms have left communities in central and northern Alberta particularly at risk for fires, Hasell said.

"The forecast is not calling for any precipitation," she said. "It doesn't look like the forest fire situation is going to be over anytime soon."

Alberta's fire season officially begins March 1 and ends Oct. 31.

In late April, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees warned that the government this year had shortened the availability of seasonal firefighters to about four months.

Mike Dempsey, an AUPE vice-president, said the province delayed hiring some wildland crews until late May and will end many contracts earlier than usual, in early September.

Understaffing has been chronic this season and many seasonal workers will be gone as of the first week of September, he said.

"Their contracts are at an end because they were cut back," Dempsey said.  "And my understanding right now is that the government is frantically trying to extend some of those contracts."

Reducing staffing is a gamble that defies both expert advice and the current forecast, he said.

Mackenzie Blyth, a spokesperson for cabinet minister Nate Horner, whose portfolio includes forestry, said the wildfire budget was not cut and no firefighter positions have been eliminated before the end of their agreed terms.

"Seasonal firefighters are hired for various set terms, and length of employment is based on current and forecasted fire danger," Blyth said in a statement.

The province is prepared to respond to a wildfire emergency with additional resources at any time of year, he said.

Flannigan said most provinces have legislated end-dates for their fire seasons but will extend contracts for seasonal workers and call in outside help, as needed.

As the wildfire season grows longer, it's increasingly important that provincial governments manage their resources and guard their budgets carefully, he said.

"We have seen fires in every month of the year," he said. "If you've got dry fuels and hot, dry, windy conditions, regardless of the month, you're at risk."

'Always prepared'

Of the 59 forest fires burning in Alberta on Wednesday, 40 were classified as being held and 19 were under control.

The danger is most elevated along the northern border of the province, where the wildfire risk is listed as high to extreme.

"Any time we see hot, dry conditions, it's a concern," said Melissa Story, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire. "We are always keeping an eye on weather patterns and ensuring we have resources available."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

Most of Alberta's fire behaviour occurs in the spring after the snow melts, while the long nights of the fall season typically provide some relief. Alberta Wildfire, however, plans for wildfire year-round, Story said.

"We don't classify wildfire season as being over until we see a significant amount of rain or snow," she said.

"Our legislated end-date is Oct. 31 but that said, we are always prepared for whatever might happen."

Throwing out the calendar? 

Jamie Coutts, a firefighter with more than 30 years of wildland experience, said for decades, the season would arrive and end like clockwork.

"We used to always be able to use a calendar," said Coutts, who now serves as deputy fire chief in Chestermere.  "In my opinion, we need to throw that calendar out."

Coutts said the province needs to be more proactive with its fire-fighting and establish guaranteed budgets for each season.

"It's always concerning to me that the staffing and and the work for wildfires is based on budgets and politics and the wildfires just don't care about those things.

"Mother Nature doesn't have those rules."