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Alberta bans most off-highway vehicle use to keep wildfire risk down as pandemic rages

The Alberta government is restricting the use of off-highway vehicles to prevent a major wildfire from breaking out at the same time the province is fighting COVID-19.

Last year, 71 per cent of Alberta wildfires were caused by human activity

More than 70 per cent of Alberta wildfires last season were caused by humans. (Josh Lambert )

The Alberta government is restricting the use of off-highway vehicles to prevent a major wildfire from breaking out at the same time the province is fighting COVID-19.

The measures, announced Tuesday by Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, come into effect on Wednesday. 

Off-highway vehicle use is still allowed on private land for industrial, energy and agricultural purposes. Indigenous people may still use them for traditional activities.

All other use is prohibited, Dreeshen said, adding that contravention now carries a fine of $1,200 —twice as much as before.

Dreeshen also announced a ban on fires in the Forest Protection Area, provincial parks and protected areas, which covers about 60 per cent of the province. 

Last year, 71 per cent of Alberta wildfires were caused by human activity like improperly extinguished campfires and sparks from off-highway vehicles, such as quads or all-terrain vehicles, he said.

Spring is prime time for wildfires because dead, dry vegetation uncovered after the snow melts is highly combustible. 

Provincial officials are concerned about the prospect of having to fight a major fire at the same time that many resources are allocated to fighting and mitigating the effects of COVID-19.

"We realize that many are excited about the prospects of going outdoors as the weather finally warms up," Dreeshen said. "But while this may change plans for some, our first priority is and always will be to protect Albertans and ensure our communities are safe."

Alberta Wildfire is spending $5 million to boost seasonal staffing by an additional 200 firefighters, boosting the contingent to about 800. That's on top of the 370 ministry staff who work all year. 

The province is giving municipalities another $20 million to implement Fire Smart measures aimed at preventing fires from encroaching on their communities.

Wildfire season runs from March 1 to Oct. 31. As of Tuesday, six fires were burning in Alberta, all considered under control.

Last fire season, according to provincial figures, 989 wildfires burned more than 883,000 hectares of Alberta forest. 

The McMillan wildfire, which scorched more than 273,000 hectares and threatened communities northeast of Slave Lake in May 2019, was the result of arson.

A dual threat 

Tuesday's announcement comes as Alberta grapples with how to cope simultaneously with two public health threats: the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending wildfire season.

From staffing the front lines to potential evacuations, the health crisis has complicated almost every aspect of planning for the wildfire season. 

In previous years, at the peak of wildfire season, firefighters from other provinces and jurisdictions have flown in to help crews in Alberta. That kind of response may be complicated this spring and summer by travel restrictions and flight cancellations.

The pandemic has also raised questions about ensuring the health of firefighters, who often work and live in close quarters. As more Albertans fall ill, it could impact the number of healthy firefighters available to work. 

The prospect of cramming evacuees into emergency shelters has also raised public health concerns. 

Shane Schrieber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said a Provincial Operations Centre will be helped by a new pandemic response planning team. He said the province is regularly talking with and collaborating with municipal and local authorities.

"I believe that we are ready as we can be for the upcoming disaster season," he said. "It will not be without its challenges and we're going to need all Albertans to look out for one another and to continue to behave responsibly."

Schrieber said AEMA has a new evacuation framework that has been shared with local authorities and municipalities. He said these bodies are working on their evacuation plans to take the pandemic into account. 

Dreeshen said his ministry is working with Alberta Labour and Alberta Health Services to implement social distancing measures to keep firefighters safe.

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