Grande Prairie region braces for 2018 wildfire season

During wildfire season in Alberta, Trevor Grant and his crew can stand on the roof of their fire station near Grande Prairie and pick out columns of smoke on the horizon.

Western Canada wildfires burning hotter, faster and bigger than ever before, province says

Wildfire season in Alberta was moved up by one month, from April 1 to March 1, following the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

During wildfire season in Alberta, Trevor Grant and his crew can stand on the roof of their fire station near Grande Prairie and pick out columns of smoke on the horizon.

"We'll come up on the roof here and just have a look out," said Grant, fire chief for the County of Grande Prairie regional fire services.

"I've spent a few of my days up on the roof here, watching for smoke," he added. "You can actually see where the events are, sometimes before you get called to them."

County firefighters respond to as many as 16 emergency calls in a day, from a region that spans 5,500 square kilometres.

Trevor Grant, fire chief for the County of Grande Prairie regional fire services, stands on the roof of his fire station. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Alberta's wildfire season began March 1. Grant and his crew are preparing for outdoor grass and forest fires, which he said dominate emergency calls in the summer.

"There are some hot spot areas that could be of concern in this area and it's definitely areas that we've been keeping an eye on," Grant said.

"We had an above-average snow pack this year so it's definitely going to help us early on in the spring," he added. "It's really kind of tough to judge how it's going to play out. 

If the region has a wet spring, it will dampen the fire risk. If it's dry, it could be a different story, Grant noted.

The work is split between five fire stations that employ 120 volunteer and full-time firefighters. Fire departments, in towns and villages including Hythe and Beaverlodge, also cover portions of the county.

The firefighters work together with the municipal and provincial government for at least two training exercises a year.

The most recent, which wrapped up March 2, simulated a large-scale forest wildfire tearing through rural communities toward a city.

"It did solidify our preparedness," Grant said. "You can't practise enough for these events because when they do happen, it's definitely a test of resources from the fire ground level right up into the emergency operations centres and the provincial level."

Fort McMurray a turning point

The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire triggered significant changes in the way firefighters in Alberta respond to emergencies, Grant said.

For instance, his teams are transitioning to a more advanced provincial communication system that will allow firefighters across Alberta to communicate by radio.

The current radio communication range for firefighters in the County of Grande Prairie is about one kilometre, Grant said.  

Communication breakdowns were identified as one of the key failures in Fort McMurray two years ago.

Wildfires in British Columbia last year served as a further reminder for why his crew needs to adapt, Grant said.

Even though he wasn't involved in that response, Grant said he anticipates wildfires of a similar magnitude to hit Alberta in coming years.

'Culture of preparedness'

Tim Conrad, a communications consultant and former volunteer firefighter, worked in wildfire crisis communication in B.C. last year.

He authored and published a report on March 20 about the emergency response, commissioned by the Cariboo Regional District.

Nearly half the district's residents were evacuated from their homes during the 2017 wildfire season, which destroyed more than 200 buildings.

"I can't push enough that a culture of preparedness is so important as we head into the future," Conrad said. "People need to be prepared, they can't wait for government to prepare things for them."

Tim Conrad authored the report, which was commissioned by the Cariboo Regional District in British Columbia. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Having emergency kits available and addressing fire hazards on properties are key to the preparation process, Conrad explained.

He visited 18 communities to consult with members of the public, as well as businesses and non-profit organizations.

One of his key findings was the lack of communication options for those living in remote areas, Conrad said. Many don't have reliable access to the internet, radio or cell phone service.

Municipal and provincial governments need to review how they communicate evacuation orders and other vital information during emergencies, Conrad said.

"These fires are happening very quickly and building up very quickly. You have to respond extremely fast in order to get ahead of them."

Conrad, who is based in Grande Prairie, said the 70 recommendations outlined in his report shouldn't stop at the B.C.-Alberta border.

"There's a lot of things that any municipality can pick up and take and adapt," he said. "Grande Prairie should be concerned. 

"All of Alberta, all of B.C. should be concerned with what is going to happen — not just with wildfires, but there's other things that come out of wildfires like floods."

Lessons learned 

Major wildfires in recent years, including the blazes in B.C. and the 2016 Fort McMurray fire, have resulted in a series of reports and recommendations, said Travis Fairweather, a wildfire information officer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

"Fort McMurray was such an unprecedented event, just in terms of the fire size," Fairweather said. "The fire behaviour was much different than what we'd seen before."

The wildfires he has encountered in western Canada over the past two years have burned hotter and faster than any he remembers, Fairweather said.

To prepare for each wildfire season, Alberta hires meteorologists and other experts to predict hot spots for the spring, fall and summer.

In northern Alberta, pockets of aging forest near Peace River, High Level and Slave Lake pose a risk for severe wildfires.

"If a fire were to get in there, there'd be a lot of issues for sure," Fairweather said.

Meanwhile, southern Alberta has shown a pattern of hot, dry weather and drought conditions in recent years, he said.

"Those are areas that we're going to make sure we've got lots of resources nearby, lots of crews stationed at the fire bases there, ready to react in case any fires start."

Earlier start to wildfire season

Following the Fort McMurray wildfire, the province moved up its official wildfire season start date by one month, from April 1 to March 1.

The extra 31 days offer a valuable window for preparation and training, Fairweather said. 

"Even though there's snow on the ground there's still a lot being done behind the scenes to help prepare for the upcoming season, and once the snow starts melting we're going to see the hazards going up."

The province has also introduced tougher fines, to deter behaviour such as abandoning campfires.

"Everyone needs to do their part to help prevent these wildfires," he said.

As of March 21, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has recorded 14 fires in forest protection areas this year.

Anyone who detects a wildfire in Alberta can report it by calling 310-3473. 

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About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Grande Prairie, Alta., filing videos and stories about the Peace region for web, radio and TV.