Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo prepares for early Alberta wildfire season

“We live in the Boreal Forest and the Boreal Forest is dependent on fire for its survival. We’ve gotta be ready when that event happens,” said Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz.

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The municipality and the Alberta government have spent months preparing for the 2024 wildfire season, which started 10 days early on Feb. 20. Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz is urging people to be calm and prepared after last year’s wildfire season was marked by the evacuation of Fort Chipewyan and dozens of smoky days.

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“We’re ready for a dry wildfire season. Our resources are fresh, our relationships with forestry and the provincial government are good, and we’re not sitting on our laurels. We’ve been very proactive,” said Butz in an interview. “We live in the Boreal Forest and the Boreal Forest is dependent on fire for its survival. We’ve gotta be ready when that event happens.”

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Wildfire season in Alberta usually runs from March 1 to Oct. 31. However, low snowfall and forecasts of bone-dry weather across the province prompted the Alberta government to begin the season on Tuesday. A permit is now required for any burning in the forest protection area and fire bans will likely follow.

The 2023 wildfire season burned 22,000 square kilometres in Alberta, or about 10 times the five-year average. About 38,000 people from 48 communities were part of evacuations

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Wildfires burned more than 3,643 square kilometres of land in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, mostly around the Fort Chipewyan area. Some trapper cabins were destroyed, but firefighters kept the flames from the community. Fort McMurray also reported more smoky days than any other year, including 2016.

Roughly 1,000 people were able to safely leave Fort Chipewyan when wildfires threatened the community in May. More than 350 people from Fort Smith, NWT and Fort Fitzgerald were flown to Fort McMurray in August and stayed in the city for more than a month.

Firefighting, evacuations and the logistics of the 2023 wildfire season cost the municipality more than $4.1 million. Butz says he cannot predict what the weather will look like this summer or spring, or how much rain will fall on the region. However, people should be ready for dry weather.

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firefighters
Firefighters with the Fort McMurray Fire Department conduct a controlled burn near Highway 63 on April 27, 2023. The controlled burns are part of the RMWB’s FireSmart program, which is designed to fight and prevent fires and wildfires in the region. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

In the meantime Butz says the region’s FireSmart program is running. Home assessments to cut fire risks will be available across the region. A rebate is available for completing any suggestions. Controlled burns and vegetation management will continue.

“At the end of the day, it’s how the community responds. We can be there for each other, stop the fires from starting and get human-caused wildfires from carelessness down to zero,” said Butz. “That’s the area where we can improve on living in the Boreal Forest.”

Nearly 900 firefighters ready by April, NDP criticizes UCP preparedness

Alberta will have nearly 900 firefighters ready to be deployed by April 15. Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said at a Tuesday news conference that his department is requesting funding to hire an extra 100 firefighters ready for May.

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Loewen also promised new equipment to help battle fires at night when flames and temperatures have dropped. He also promised to expand volunteer programs.

“I know Albertans are feeling uneasy about the risks posed to their homes, communities and daily lives. I understand these concerns and I share them as someone whose home was near the forest and was threatened by a wildfire in 2023,” said Loewen.

“Alberta currently has adequate firefighters and support staff ready to respond to wildfires across our landscape and we have secured all contracts for additional personnel. Recruitment and training are ongoing and capacity will continue to increase as we get further into the wildfire season.”

controlled burn
Firefighters with the Fort McMurray Fire Department conduct a controlled burn near Highway 63 on April 27, 2023. The controlled burns are part of the RMWB’s FireSmart program, which is designed to fight and prevent fires and wildfires in the region. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

He acknowledged the province has been slow reimbursing municipalities under the Disaster Recovery Program and getting funding to evacuees. Loewen said the province was challenged by the magnitude of the 2023 wildfire season. Provincial expenditures for wildfires last year were around $835 million, he added, and processing contracts and payments took longer than expected.

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“We are preparing for the worst when it comes to this year and hopefully we’ll be prepared to maybe move those payments a little faster than we have in the past,” he said.

Heather Sweet, forestry critic for the Opposition NDP, accused the UCP of falling behind on training and staffing ahead of the wildfire season.

“Work on this should have started months ago. The UCP needs to collaborate with the federal emergency management committee to create a federal fire fighting task force, and work with all orders of governments, civil society and Indigenous communities to prevent needless loss,” she said in a statement. “We need year-round wildland firefighters to ensure there are ready and trained boots on the ground for every start of every wildfire season.”

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