After a brief reprieve from the hot and dry weather that has fed wildfires in Alberta this month, a heat dome is settling over parts of the province, raising the possibility of more suffering in communities already on edge.
While many of the evacuation orders that have affected the northern half of the province over the past 10 days have been rescinded, frustrations with the wildfire response have persisted among some residents, who may be forced from their homes again if fires reignite or spread.
John Craig, a meteorologist with the federal Environment Department, said the risk of more fires is high, with forests and fields already tinder-dry.
“Low winds, very little precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures. That’s what we’re expecting,” Mr. Craig said.
The hot, dry weather is due partly to a high-pressure system that isn’t expected to break down any time soon, he explained. The heat may approach seasonal records. Temperatures on Monday are expected to be in the low 30s, nearing the highest May temperature ever recorded at the Edmonton airport, 32.8 C.
Wildfires had burned nearly 445,000 hectares of the province as of Friday, greatly exceeding the area of last year’s entire wildfire season.
Josée St-Onge, a spokesperson with Alberta Wildfire, told a news conference on Friday that firefighting teams had been using the past week’s cooler weather to prepare for more challenging conditions. Those preparations included building firebreaks, reinforcing fire guards and readying fresh firefighting teams.
“The wildfire danger is expected to grow in the coming days. We are expecting hot and dry conditions in most of the province, which will make the wildfire danger climb. We’re likely to see more intense wildfire activity this weekend into early next week,” Ms. St-Onge said.
More than 1,000 firefighters have been deployed to Alberta since the fires began, with hundreds more expected to arrive next week. The federal government announced Thursday that the military will be deploying 300 soldiers to provide assistance.
Last weekend, the Alberta government declared a state of provincial emergency. There were 76 active wildfires as of Friday afternoon, with 22 burning out of control. Nearly 16,500 Albertans remain out of their homes, down from around 31,000 at the peak.
Parkland County’s Fire Chief Brian Cornforth encouraged the public to be alert. He said in an interview he expects increased fire activity in the area will put pressure on operations throughout the weekend.
“With resource challenges right now, we’ve asked on numerous occasions for more help from our province, and we need that now,” he said.
He isn’t the only person expressing concern about how the province has handled this season’s wildfires.
On social media and in town halls, evacuees from Parkland County to Grande Prairie have said they are frustrated with the province’s response.
Some evacuees have said not enough has been done to fight fires, particularly in the early stages. Others have said they have offered to provide equipment to help combat the fires and recover livestock, but they were turned away by response teams.
Darryl Martin, the incident commander of the Grande Prairie Regional Emergency Partnership (GPREP), which co-ordinates responses to disasters in the area, said he understands the frustration.
“I would totally sympathize if I had been asked to leave my house or property and there’s a delay in getting back,” he said.
Residents in some parts of Grande Prairie have been allowed to return home, but the GPREP has said they need to be prepared to evacuate again if necessary.
Stephen Wong, an expert in wildfire evacuation and an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta, said the best practice for evacuations is to send quick and accurate emergency alerts through a variety of media.
He said there have been some challenges with Alberta’s alert system. He noted reports that some people had received notices late, or not at all.
“I think this does present some challenges for us moving forward in that not all these communication methods are being adequately used,” he said.
Miranda Laroche, executive director of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre, a non-profit that works to bridge the cultural gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, said the centre has been a hub for food, clothes, hygiene products and gift-card donations throughout the fires.
“We just pray for rain,” she said.
With a file from Alanna Smith