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Alberta has declared an early start to wildfire season and intends to hire 100 additional firefighters as it braces for another year of widespread blazes, fuelled by exceptional drought conditions in some areas of the province and limited precipitation.

Todd Loewen, Alberta’s Minister of Forestry and Parks, made the declaration during a news conference on Tuesday. He said the early call allows the province to issue fire bans and other restrictions to limit wildfire risk. The government will bring in bans “a little more proactively” compared to last year, he added. He also announced that permits are now required for any burning in Alberta’s Forest Protection Area, which spans much of the province.

“In 2023, over 60 per cent of wildfires in Alberta were human-caused, meaning they could have been prevented. These human-caused wildfires placed an additional strain on personnel and resources,” Mr. Loewen said, adding that he is confident Alberta is prepared for the coming wildfire season. “Alberta currently has adequate firefighters and support staff ready to respond.”

He said Alberta will also enhance its nighttime operations this season. This includes the use of night-vision-equipped helicopters and ground suppression efforts. Bernie Schmitte, executive director of Alberta Wildfire, said firefighting at night is more effective because flames become subdued as temperatures drop and humidity increases.

Roughly 22,000 square kilometres of land was scorched by wildfires in Alberta during the last season, from March 1 to Oct. 31. Not only was this an all-time record, it greatly exceeded the five-year average for area burned, which was just 2,262 square kilometres. Thousands of firefighters from outside the province and abroad came to Alberta to battle the blazes, some of which were never extinguished. There are 54 active wildfires in the province currently, only 17 of which ignited this year. All of the active fires are considered under control.

Meanwhile, drought conditions across Western Canada are making a bad situation worse.

Precipitation across Alberta varied in January, but central, southern and northwestern areas in the province continued to see short and long-term impacts from a lack of rain and snowfall, according to a Canadian Drought Monitor report from Jan. 31. Warmer temperatures melted what snow there was and eroded lower-than-normal snowpacks in the southern and central regions, maintaining severe, extreme and – in some areas – exceptional drought conditions.

“Significant concern remains for this region going into the spring as reservoirs are still extremely low compared to normal and mountain snowpack has been limited thus far this year,” the report says. At the end of January, it adds, 100 per cent of the Prairies region, which includes Manitoba and Saskatchewan, was classified as “abnormally dry” or in “moderate to exceptional drought,” including all of the region’s agricultural landscape.

Water shortage advisories have been issued across Alberta.

The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association called on the provincial government at the end of January to immediately disclose its wildfire preparedness strategy, since wildfires are occurring with greater frequency, intensity, duration and size. The association said it had met with the government to ask for additional resources, increased training capacity and the establishment of a provincial fire services advisory committee to develop a streamlined strategy.

“There is a growing concern among fire chiefs across the province [about] the lack of communication of what the plan is, allocation of funds compared to previous years and plan for the recruitment and deployment of firefighters and equipment,” an open letter from the association said. It also raised concerns that municipalities have been left to foot the bill for fire response.

Mr. Loewen said on Tuesday that he has an “open-door policy” with municipalities and fire chiefs and has met with them at their request. He also pointed to Alberta’s fireguard program, in which the province helps at-risk communities cover the costs associated with building fireguards.

Provinces across Canada, notably British Columbia and Ontario, also required help from other provinces and countries to stifle widespread fires last season. Mr. Loewen said that despite competition for resources Alberta has received a record number of applicants for wildland firefighting for this season. He did not provide specifics.

Heather Sweet, forestry critic for the Alberta NDP, said the province’s United Conservative Party government is already behind.

“Even though the government knew there were active wildfires burning underground over the winter, the UCP laid off wildland firefighters for the season and waited until the beginning of the 2024 wildfire season to start hiring with no training time,” she said.

“We are behind on training and staffing.”

The coming provincial budget, expected to be tabled on Feb. 29, will include funding for 100 additional fire personnel, Mr. Loewen said. Additional conversations about firefighting resources can be had after that, he added.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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