A University of Alberta professor says Alberta could potentially face an active wildfire season this spring, nearly a year after the Fort McMurray wildfire ravaged thousands of hectares, destroyed hundreds of houses and displaced an entire community.
Mike Flannigan, the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta, said the fairly dry winter is to blame.
“There’s not a lot of snow and we have this window of opportunity for fires to occur after the snow melts until the grass greens up and the trees leaf out – that’s a window for fire,” he said.
Flannigan notes those were the conditions leading up to the the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire and last year’s blaze in Fort McMurray.
READ MORE: Alberta braces for start of wildfire season
He said the wildfire risk depends on day-to-day weather but he said hot or warm dry, windy weather could trigger a “serious fire season.”
“All you need is about a week of warm dry weather and away we go.”
He said communities surrounded by boreal forests, such as Whitecourt and Edson, are at high risk.
Mike Derricott, the CEO of the Town of Edson, said the Slave Lake and Fort McMurray wildfires were wake up calls.
“Any community has to assess their natural environment. As far as I’m concerned, nature is undefeated,” he said.
“It’s not about overcoming nature. It’s about doing our best to live in safe proximity to the natural environment.”
Edson councillor Janet Wilkinson said the town has been using Fire Smart grants for the last several years.
“That really has changed the town itself. We have an extensive system of walking trails and much of the foliage was cut out from beside them. We really are cleaning out all the underbrush and everything that could result in devastating fire,” she said.
Wilkinson said emergency measure planning also takes place – in one exercise, the town practiced opening up an emergency reception centre. She said nearby facilities, such as a provincial agriculture and forestry building and an airport suited for water bombers, position the town to be well-prepared.
Fire Chief Alan Schram said the department receives approximately 170 calls every year, and last year 15 to 20 of those calls were wildland calls where crews responded to wildfires caused by humans, abandoned campfires or where the cause was unknown.
He said fire crews are more alert and aware during the window for wildfires and notes that they train specifically for that.
Schram said a community protection plan was created several years ago between the Town of Edson, Yellowhead County and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
“Really what the protection plan did is it identifies the risks around the Town of Edson and a 10 kilometre radius around the town,” he said.
“It identifies values at risk, identifies areas which have potential for wildfire to impact our community and we have some strategies, especially in town, some mitigation strategies, vegetation management, to limit those risks.”
Schram said the fire department has learned some lessons from other wildfires in the province, particularly from the Slave Lake blaze.
“Don’t be so complacent about it. Wildfires happen. It can happen very quickly. Be very aware, be trained and be prepared.”
The wildfire season used to begin around April 1 but it has been shifting to earlier in the year.