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Alberta Alberta wildfire season off to aggressive start with significantly more land burned than usual

A vehicle leaves High Level, Alta., on May 21, 2019. Roughly 5,000 residents from High Level and the surrounding area were forced to leave by an evacuation order issued this past Sunday.

Stefanie Brown/The Canadian Press

Alberta has had roughly the same number of wildfires so far this year compared with its five-year average, but they have chewed through far more territory than usual as hot, dry weather increases the risk for much of the province.

This year’s fires have spared Alberta the chaos and destruction of the Fort McMurray blaze in 2016, but one wildfire is nipping at a number of northern communities. That wildfire, known as the Chuckegg Creek fire, is about three kilometres out of High Level, whose residents were among about 5,000 people forced to flee over the weekend. The fire is also threatening swaths of the neighbouring Dene Tha’ First Nation.

There have been 453 wildfires in Alberta in 2019, just below the five-year average of 459. However, this year’s fires have burned down about 134,730 hectares, about 24 per cent more than the five-year average of roughly 108,800 hectares, according to data the Alberta government released Wednesday. Alberta’s lightning fire season is just starting, which puts the province at risk of many more fires if it does not rain soon.

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On top of this year’s dry spring, Alberta’s forests have been hit with high temperatures and low relative humidity over the past few weeks.

“Under those extreme burning conditions, any fire that does get going is extremely difficult to control,” Scott Elliot, incident commander for Alberta Wildfire, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Fires have become more complicated in that there’s a lot of pressures on the landscape and there’s a lot of land use in Alberta.”

And that means increased risk of economic pain. The Fort McMurray fire, for example, lowered real GDP by 0.4 per cent in the second quarter of 2016, according to Statistics Canada. That fire, known as “the Beast," shut down a number of major oil sands projects for days and forced roughly 88,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray for about a month.

The fire near High Level, which is 740 kilometres north of Edmonton, has not damaged any buildings in town or in the Dene Tha’ First Nation’s communities. Two major industrial players in High Level have been forced to shutter operations and firefighters are working to protect their infrastructure. Tolko Industries Ltd. on Wednesday said it suspended operations at its lumber mill, and Norbord Inc. on Tuesday said it halted production at its oriented strand board mill.

Roughly 5,000 residents from High Level and the surrounding area were forced to leave by an evacuation order issued this past Sunday. The evacuation also includes Bushe River, Meander River and Chateh, which are the Dene Tha’ First Nation communities.

Wind is blowing the Chuckegg Creek fire away from High Level, but its mayor begged residents to stay out of the town.

“The danger has not passed, nor has it diminished,” Crystal McAteer said Wednesday. “Prepare to be out of your homes longer than you had previously anticipated.”

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Officials declined to estimate when residents would be allowed to return home. The fire has mowed down roughly 92,000 hectares of forest, according to the province.

ATCO Electric temporarily restored power to High Level, Dene Tha’ First Nation, Mackenzie Country, La Crete, Fort Vermilion and other communities Tuesday evening. Residents, however, should prepare for intermittent service, ATCO spokeswoman Catherine Clynch said in a statement.

ATCO’s system “suffered severe damage” to 68 structures that are part of two transmission lines. The company has made temporary repairs to 16 structures, Ms. Clynch said, and that has allowed it to restore power to one of two lines. Twelve structures have been repaired, she said.

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