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Thick smoke from wildfires blankets the landscape near Water Valley, Alta., 100 kilometres northwest of Calgary, on May 16.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

More than one million hectares in Alberta have been scorched in what is a record-setting spring and an unprecedented start to wildfire season. Less than halfway through the seven-month period when the province is most at risk, Alberta is well on its way to having the worst fire season on record and exceeding 1981, when about 1.36 million hectares were burned.

“Fire season ends at the end of October so, for this time of year, yes this is extraordinary,” said Christie Tucker, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire during a news conference in Edmonton on Tuesday. “Even though we have made headway on many wildfires on the landscape, we know that the season is far from over.”

Cooler weather and rain have dampened wildfire activity in recent days but there remain 71 active fires in the province, 20 of which are considered to be out of control. Ms. Tucker said firefighters have had several “good days” but the season is a long way from ending.

Firefighters have responded to 520 blazes so far this year, ripping across 1,017,000 hectares of land. The previous high for the spring season alone was 615,000 hectares burned in 2019, which was driven in large part owing to a wildfire near High Level, Alta. Ms. Tucker said the “unusual nature” of this season is the number of large-scale fires burning in different areas of central and northern Alberta.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring British Columbia, all evacuation orders in the northeastern part of the province have been lifted or downgraded as heavy rains eased the fire danger. Eighteen fires were considered to be out of control of the 82 active blazes in B.C. on Tuesday afternoon.

Bre Hutchinson, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said she hopes that cooler temperatures and scattered precipitation also continue to assist Alberta in the fight against wildfires but the situation remains volatile. A total of 10,655 Albertans are still under evacuation orders.

So far, Ms. Hutchinson said, the government has processed about 14,200 applications for one-time relief payments for evacuees, totalling more than $25-million. An estimated 275 structures have been damaged or destroyed by fire, including homes, businesses, outbuildings and commercial buildings.

Ms. Tucker said there are more than 1,100 firefighters from Canada and the United States assisting nearly 1,700 local responders. She said additional firefighters are arriving from the U.S. on Wednesday and from New Zealand and Australia later in the week, which will include specialists in supervision and aviation management.

“Today, we’ve seen a continuation of the showers that started in the province yesterday and the lower fire behaviour that resulted from that. Many of the major wildfires burning received some rain, which means these are good days for firefighters to make real progress on containing these fires,” she said.

Ms. Tucker noted that the problem fire at the Sturgeon Lake Complex has now been reclassified to “being held,” meaning it is not expected to grow beyond its established boundaries. That blaze has destroyed dozens of homes in Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation.

Smoke continues to reduce visibility for firefighters but Ms. Tucker said there has been significant progress in fighting other fires on the ground. She said fire personnel have been busy building fire guards and using heavy equipment, such as bulldozers, to clear vegetation that could draw a fire closer to a community.

In B.C., the Peace River Regional District has cancelled orders issued last week affecting properties threatened by the Stoddart Creek fire northeast of Fort St. John.

Officials made the announcement Monday evening, as they also lifted an evacuation order covering properties around the estimated 13,000-square-kilometre Donnie Creek fire southeast of Fort Nelson.

The provincial wildfire service lists the Stoddart Creek fire as now being “held.”

Evacuation alerts still cover more than 500 properties in northeastern B.C., but rainfall warnings are now posted for a large part of that region and Environment Canada says up to 100 millimetres is expected to fall before the weather system eases.

The River Forecast Centre has posted flood watches for much of east-central B.C., from the Peace River area to the Kootenay, Boundary and Okanagan areas.

It says extremely warm conditions over the last week have speeded snowmelt, swelling rivers and leaving them vulnerable to added rainfall and the potential for flooding or debris flows.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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