Northern Alberta wildfires are a reminder that fire season is here

Published: May 27, 2019

firefighter-wildfire Photo by Toa55/Shutterstock

While parts of Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick recover from historic flooding, northern Alberta is responding to out-of-control wildfires covering more than 100,000 hectares.

The fires threaten High Level, Alta., a town of 4,000 smack between Edmonton and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, as well as a number of nearby First Nations communities. All have been under an evacuation order since the fires began last week. Local firefighters and backup responders from as far away as Nova Scotia continue to work to keep the fires from spreading into towns and destroying buildings.

“This is a big fire, close to twice the size of Toronto,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Calgary. But so far, he says, the firefighting strategy is working, thanks to back burns, where fuel—trees and brush—is burned in a controlled way to create breaks. “So then, when the wildfire and the back burn meet, there’s no fuel,” he explains.

Flannigan has been studying wildfire since the 1970s and is at work on a model, using artificial intelligence, to predict conditions that make wildfires more likely so that fire management can be ready to respond. He’s watched as, on the one hand, prevention strategies have made wildfires less likely and, on the other, climate change has made wildfires more likely. So, he says, we’re not seeing more wildfires, on average, but those we are experiencing are of greater intensity. For one thing, wildfire season is growing longer. Warmer temperatures, on average, also increase lightning strikes, which can cause fires.

Flannigan reminds cottagers who’ve been dealing with water damage that “flooding doesn’t mean you can’t have a busy fire season. All you need is one week of really hot, dry, windy weather.” He points to 2017 when British Columbia had devastating flooding following by massive wildfires.

And if we think Ontario is immune to wildfires, last summer’s fire—Parry Sound 33—was a “wake-up call,” says Flannigan. “We’re going to have to live with fire. Our climate is changing. People don’t like to hear that.”

Consequently, prevention is crucial. Respect bans, he says. Oh, and, “enjoy your summer.”

 

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