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Risk of new fires ‘significant,’ as Alberta prepares for wildfire danger to escalate this weekend

Alberta officials and fire crews are preparing for a shift to hot, dry conditions that will challenge the province’s firefighting efforts this weekend. 

Thousands of evacuees anxious to return home.

A firefighter stands atop a hill, looking out over a smoky sky. Mountains can be seen in the background.

Alberta officials and fire crews are preparing for a shift to hot, dry conditions that will challenge the province’s firefighting efforts this weekend.

There are currently 74 active wildfires burning in the province, including 20 that are out of control. After a brief reprieve from scorching temperatures, the forecast is calling for intense heat in the northern and central parts of the province that are already ravaged by wildfires.

“While the recent rain and cooler weather in parts of Alberta has brought some relief to some areas, we remain in an extremely volatile situation,” said Colin Blair, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, at an update Friday.

“The risk of new wildfires remain significant in much of the province. It will take much more than a few scattered showers to change the wildfire situation.”

The province’s Friday update stressed that Albertans need to remain vigilant as hot temperatures move into Alberta this weekend.

Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis asked all Albertans to follow the fire bans and off-highway vehicle restrictions to prevent new wildfires from starting and warned those living in areas under evacuation alert that they need to be prepared, with enough supplies for seven days, to leave on short notice.

“These fires can move very quickly and being prepared for rapid changes can make a huge difference,” Ellis said.

A new evacuation order was issued by the M.D. of Greenview Friday around 5 p.m., for the area south of Grovedale. Residents north of Township Road 690 to the Wapiti River should be prepared to evacuate on short notice. Those in the affected area should evacuate to Grande Prairie.

Delayed danger of lightning

Alberta Wildfire information officer Josee St-Onge said fire crews are preparing for the hot weather by building fire breaks and making use of firefighters coming in from outside the province.

“Our teams on the ground have been working hard to prepare for more challenging conditions,” she said.

St-Onge noted that some areas of the province have seen lightning strikes in recent days, which carry a risk of starting new fires.

“Lightning caused fires can smoulder for days and ignite when the conditions are hot, dry and windy,” she said.

St-Onge said there are about 1,000 wildland firefighters, heavy equipment and helicopter operators around that province.

There are also 200 members of the Canadian Armed Forces helping, with another 100 set to be deployed in the coming days. Another 200 firefighters are expected arrive from the United States on Saturday.

Evacuees who have left their homes for seven days can get a one-time payment of $1,250, as well as $500 for each child under the age of 18. Ellis said so far evacuees have received $6.8 million in aid from the province via e-transfers and $570,000 has been distributed through debit cards.

Long-term evacuations

Thousands of people in west-central Alberta evacuated more than one week ago won’t be allowed to return for at least another week.

Residents of Brazeau County, including 7,200 residents of the town of Drayton Valley, were evacuated from their homes on May 4. A notice from the county issued Thursday evening said there is no concrete date for their return in sight.

Brazeau County is the latest Alberta community to warn residents that mandatory evacuation orders may stay in place for days or weeks longer due to the loss of critical infrastructure or the potential hazards posed by encroaching flames.

Officials have no choice but to keep residents out of communities that remain under threat, said Melissa Story, a provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire.

“We know it’s frustrating,” Story said Friday. “Our focus right now is the safety of Albertans and their communities.

“We are doing everything we can in terms of wildfire mitigation to try and get them back to their communities as quickly as we can.”

20 Alberta wildfires still out of control as of Friday morning

74 wildfires are burning in Alberta, with 20 considered out of control, a fire information officer said early Friday.

Since last week, when more than 100 fires ignited across the province, communities are assessing damages and reinforcing defence lines as hot conditions forecast for the days ahead threaten to increase tinder-dry conditions and aggravate the crisis.

Hot, dry weather along with powerful winds are anticipated in the days ahead. More than 16,000 people remain displaced, down from a high of about 31,000.

“The wildfire danger will elevate over the weekend,” said Story.

“We are sitting very high on the wildfire danger right now, but we could be seeing it into the extremes by Sunday.”

Frustrated evacuees

The Brazeau County update said the wildfire situation remains too volatile for residents to return.

“We hear your frustration: all of the staff, crews, and volunteers responding to this emergency are working very hard to get you home as quickly as possible,” the county said. “We know people are anxious, tired and want to go home. Our crews are working around the clock to make this happen.”

The fire that forced the evacuation of Drayton Valley is now burning two kilometres from the town limits. The has since consumed 3,500 hectares of land and continues to burn out of control.

The county says a fireguard created by dozers will help contain the spread is now 40 kilometres long.

County officials said they’ll learn in coming days how well that guard holds.

In northwest Alberta, RCMP officers will be going door to door to ensure no residents remain in the parts of the Municipal District of Greenview, which are under mandatory evacuation orders.

Affected communities include Fox Creek, the hamlet of Little Smoky and surrounding areas.

A provincial emergency alert issued Thursday at 8 p.m. said everyone who is still in those areas must leave.The Municipal District of Greenview said all residents are required to evacuate no later than noon Friday.

“Do not re-enter any areas that were heavily damaged or destroyed by the wildfire until the local fire authority has cleared the area,” said the municipality.

Seven fires are within the district’s boundaries, and two more just outside its bounds.

Crews are keeping an eye on the fire burning east of the town of Fox Creek, which is about 265 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. It is expected to grow significantly Friday.

“We have a very good defensive position and I am very confident that the town will do well,” said Brian Davidson, the town’s fire chief.

“We just want to make sure the community survives no matter what nature throws at us.”

Davidson said ground crews are building fire guards and using sprinklers to protect the properties most at risk, while water bombers douse the flames from the sky.

Davidson said crews have all the heavy equipment they need but the town is a “little shy” on people.

The arrival of military troops will help, he said

“It’s been seven days and not much sleep,” he said. “We have a common goal that this doesn’t come into to town and we’re just hoping for the best.”

Fighting the fire while their families are hours away, on evacuation orders, has taken a physical and emotional toll on local firefighters, he said.

“They’re getting tired,” he said “We all want to get back to town and back to normal as soon as we can.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

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