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Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said he is comfortable with the amount of money his government earmarked to cover expenses tied to natural disasters in the coming year, even though it is less than what the province spent this year and drought and wildfire conditions have since deteriorated.

Alberta allocated $2-billion to its contingency fund in the province’s budget for fiscal 2024-2025, which starts April 1. The government relies on this pool of money for emergencies such as fires, floods and agricultural disasters. The province expects contingency spending to hit $2.9-billion in the year ended March 31, exceeding Alberta’s original budget estimate of $1.5-billion, largely owing to expenses tied to fighting wildfires and agricultural disaster relief.

The province’s fire season typically kicks off March 1, but Alberta bumped up the start date by 10 days this year in light of the drought blanketing the province and most of Canada west of Sudbury. Despite last season’s devastation, and the expectation that this year’s drought and fires will be worse, Mr. Loewen on Friday said the contingency cushion looks adequate.

“I think we’re in good shape going into this year,” he told reporters.

Alberta counted 52 wildfires burning in the province on Friday, including scores that ignited in previous fire seasons. This far exceeds the number of blazes typically burning this time of year. The government, however, is optimistic that the weather may turn in its favour.

“Indications are that we could have a tough season based on the snowfall and the rain and weather conditions that we’ve had this winter,” Mr. Loewen said. “But it would only take a couple nice snowstorms like we had last weekend and a few nice rains in the spring that could make all the difference in the world.”

Wildfires scorched a record 22,000 square kilometres in Alberta last season. Mr. Loewen said the province spent $839-million fighting wildfires last season, compared with $250-million in an “average” year.

Mr. Loewen said Alberta plans to beef up its firefighting capacity by signing two additional long-term helicopter contracts and two new air tanker deals. It will also use more drones to survey blazes from above.

Premier Danielle Smith, in a separate news conference, told reporters the pressure on the contingency fund in 2023-2024 makes that year an outlier. She also noted the federal government assists Alberta with disaster recovery costs.

“We won’t always have a $2.9-billion disaster like we did last year,” she said.

Robert Gray, a wildland fire ecologist in British Columbia, said Alberta’s $2-billion contingency fund will likely prove paltry.

“The combination of potential wildfire activity, plus drought – that’s probably not going to be enough money,” he said.

Mr. Gray argued governments such as Alberta’s and British Columbia’s would be wise to spend more money on massive mitigation projects, including revamping the landscape with less flammable vegetation and conducting prescribed burns, to eventually reduce the amount of money necessary to suppress fires.

“For wildfire, there’s no money to do the upfront work, but there’s plenty of money once the fires break out,” he said.

Derrick Forsythe, a provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said the province is entering into the most volatile time of the year, when dry grasses emerge after snow melts, providing fuel for wildfires.

He said an El Niño season is also predicted to bring continued warm temperatures to the region.

”We could be in for a challenging spring,” he said, adding he is optimistic rain and cooler temperatures could rescue the province from another destructive wildfire season.

“I still believe that mother nature could provide us with that rain.”

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