Hot, dry temperatures and strong winds are fuelling dozens of wildfires in Northern Alberta, including a blaze that destroyed a score of homes in Little Red River Cree Nation as well as the community’s police station and general store.
As of Friday morning, Alberta officials reported 78 active wildfires burning in the province, with 19 of those listed as out of control and about 13,000 people evacuated from their homes.
And with forecasts calling for warm and windy weather in the next few days, officials are urging residents in affected areas to heed emergency alerts and be prepared to leave their homes on short notice.
“This is a stark reminder of how unpredictable and powerful wildfires can be,” said Stephen Lacroix, managing director at the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, at a media briefing Friday.
Hot, dry conditions have resulted in an early start to the wildfire season and will pose challenges for crews trying to stop them from spreading in coming days, said Christie Tucker, information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire, at the briefing.
So far this year, 348 wildfires have burned more than 25,000 hectares in the province, Ms. Tucker said, which is ”significantly more wildfire activity” for this time of year than Alberta has seen in recent years. Most of the fires are believed to be human-caused, she said.
An evacuation order was issued Thursday night for Drayton Valley and the surrounding rural area, affecting more than 7,000 residents. Up to 20 homes were believed to have been destroyed in Little Red River Cree Nation, officials said.
The Drayton Valley Pro Rodeo, which had been scheduled for May 5-7, was cancelled. In a Friday Facebook post, the group said that all animals that had been brought to the area for the event had been safely moved on Thursday night.
In response to a question about the cause of the Drayton Valley fire, Ms. Tucker said it was under investigation.
Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin was watching the smoke billow from large fires near Drayton Valley and Brazeau County when he spoke with The Globe and Mail on Friday afternoon from his property in Ponoka County, about 130 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.
Between the scores of fire roaring across the province, wind gusts, unseasonal heat and tinder-dry conditions coming out of winter, “it’s a powder keg right now,” he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, to be quite honest.”
To help combat the wildfires, 79 firefighters from Quebec and Ontario are scheduled to arrive in Alberta Friday, through an agreement with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. They will be assigned to where they are needed most as soon as they are available, Ms. Tucker said.
Fires were also flaring in Saskatchewan, where the province’s public-safety agency on Friday reported 13 active ones. Six of the fires were classified as “not contained,” meaning they were expected to grow in size.
The current wildfire situation in Alberta reflects changing climate conditions, said Mike Flannigan, a wildfire expert.
Alberta’s busiest fire period tends to happen in May, said Dr. Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta. A devastating 2016 fire in Fort McMurray took place during May, the same month a significant fire occurred in Slave Lake in 2011.
That’s the time of year when winds, temperatures and other conditions, such as the dryness of the ground, combine to create conditions for extreme fire weather, he explains. Such conditions might occur on only a handful of days, but the fires that result tend to be the large ones that result in significant damage to communities or landscapes.
“Research we have done shows that extreme fire weather is increasing, so it’s only going to get more challenging,” Dr. Flannigan said.
As temperatures get hotter, air gets drier and the atmosphere can suck more moisture out of vegetation, he explained. That means drier fuels – which means fires are easier to start and easier to spread.
In Canada, the number of human-caused fires is trending down, he added, but the number of lightning-caused fires is on the rise, contributing to an overall increase in the areas burned, Dr. Flannigan said.
Mr. McLauchlin is also the reeve of Ponoka County, where four fires have already sprung up this season. He said some of the blazes in rural Alberta are old fires sparked up again by the weather. He even dumped a load of water on his own fire pit this week to make sure there were no tiny lingering tinders that could cause a problem.
But others have been started by humans, and Mr. McLauchlin pleaded with smokers to refrain from lighting up in their cars until there is some moisture in the region.
“Smokers that throw their butts out the window should probably spend time in jail or on a fire line,” he said.