Edmonton

Massive wildfire season has Alberta seeking review of prevention, response strategies

Wildfires in Alberta have burned through more land in 2019 than any year in the past four decades, according to data from Alberta Wildfire. Now the Alberta government wants to review its wildfire prevention, management and response.

2019 wildfires displaced thousands, burned an area larger than Banff National Park

The Alberta government wants to review its wildfire preparation, response and management program. (Alberta Wildfire)

Wildfires in Alberta have burned more land in 2019 than any year in the past four decades, according to data from Alberta Wildfire. 

The blazes have burned an area larger than Banff National Park and displaced thousands of people across northern Alberta. 

A request for proposal, posted to the Alberta government's tendering website on Thursday, states "The 2019 spring wildfires in Alberta had a severe impact on people, communities, forest industry, and forest habitat."   

The posting states that the government wants to review its wildfire preparation and response. As well, it wants an external consultant to evaluate part of the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry's wildfire management program.

"2019 has been an extreme fire season," Jessica Johnson, a spokesperson for Agriculture and Forestry, said Monday in an email. 

"The intent of this review is to hear from stakeholders to identify actions we did well and things we could improve on. The review will look at our Ministry's preparedness and response to this spring's fire season. It will also look at the wildfire program itself, including what we've learned from past reviews carried out in 2015 and 2016."

Spring wildfires that burned between March and June consumed more than 800,000 hectares in Alberta — five times more than the five-year average. 

The blazes forced roughly 15,000 people to evacuate more than 20 communities, according to the posting.

Climate change creating intense wildfire season, expert says

Fires are a natural part of regenerating Alberta's boreal forests, says Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.   

"But what we're seeing with climate change is we're seeing much more fire on the landscape," Flannigan said.

"Our area burned in Canada has doubled since the 1970s and this is due to human-caused climate change. I can't be any more clear than that." 

Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, says climate change is intensifying wildfires across Canada. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

According to a recent federal report, Canada has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world since 1948; in parts of northern Alberta, where wildfires are concentrated, it is closer to three times as fast.

Flannigan says that warming impacts wildfires in three ways: the dry season is longer, there's an increase in lightning (experts say every degree brings about 10 to 12 per cent more lightning) which ignites nearly half of all forest fires in Canada, and the warmer atmosphere gets better at absorbing moisture, which can dry out forest vegetation and accelerate wildfires. 

Taken together, climate change has increased extreme fire risk in western Canada by 1.5 to six times in the past decade, according to a 2017 paper by researchers at the University of Victoria

"Not every year is going to be a bad fire year, but with our changing climate we're going to see more active fire seasons," he said. 

Most hectares burned since 1981

This wildfire season has already been the most active since 1981 when wildfires burned 1.3 million hectares.

As of Sunday, wildfires had burned 869,188 hectares of land this year — an area slightly larger than Banff National Park, which covers 664,100 hectares of land. 

About half of the area burned this year has been around High Level where the Chuckegg Creek wildfire has consumed 350,000 hectares of land since it was discovered May 12. 

Firefighters from across Canada, the U.S. and South Africa have descended on parts of northern Alberta to help battle wildfires. 

The government tender for an external review was posted on Thursday, the same day as the Chuckegg Creek blaze was designated as "being held." That means the fire is not anticipated to grow past expected boundaries, given current conditions. 

Firefighters battle the Chuckegg Creek wildfire in June. On Thursday, the fire was designated as being held, more than two months after crews first started to tackle the blaze. (Rodney Schmidt)

Flannigan commended Alberta Forestry's wildfire management, particularly around High Level. He says crews proactively burned fuel around the community to stop wildfire from spreading into town. 

"Very well done by the province," Flannigan said. 

The government's request for proposal is set to close on August 20. 

About the Author

Jordan Omstead is a reporter with CBC Edmonton.