Slow start to Alberta wildfire season linked to weather and COVID-19 restrictions

A combination of more rain and less human activity in Alberta’s forests due to COVID-19 restrictions has contributed to a slower start to the wildfire season this spring compared to recent years.

Province grateful for break after 2019 proved to be one of the busiest years on record

The Chuckegg Creek fire burned over 350,000 hectares of forest in northern Alberta in 2019 and forced the evacuation of residents in the High Level area. (Deb Stecyk)

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

A combination of more rain and less human activity in Alberta's forests due to COVID-19 restrictions has contributed to a slower start to the wildfire season this spring compared to recent years.

"We have been fortunate so far this year," said Derek Gagnon, provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire. 

Fewer than 500 hectares of forest have burned in the province since March, according to the province's data. 

At this time last year, four large fires, including the Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level, had already burned more than 350,000 ha. 

By the end of the 2019 fire season, almost 900,000 hectares of forest in Alberta had been consumed.

In big fire years, the province typically calls in reinforcements from other jurisdictions, something that wouldn't be easy during a pandemic, Gagnon said. 

"This year with COVID-19 travel restrictions and work restrictions in place, that was likely not going to be the case, which is why we ended up putting in that fire ban in mid-April," he said. 

The fire ban, which covered Alberta's protected forests and provincial parks, was lifted in late May after the province received enough rain.

"There weren't as many human-caused wildfires as a result of this," Gagnon said. "We saw that compared to last season, which was one of our busiest seasons on record."

In 2019, there were 989 wildfires in the province with more than 70 per cent of them caused by people, according to Alberta Wildfire. The rest were started by lightning.

The top two human causes last year were arson and recreational activities, such as campfires and off-road vehicles. 

There have been half the amount of human-caused wildfires so far this year compared to 2019, Gagnon said, thanks in part to the fire ban and limits on gatherings. 

"The measures that have been taken to stem the spread of COVID-19 have definitely also helped stem the spread of wildfires."

Jen Beverly is an assistant professor of wildland fire in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta. (Supplied by Jen Beverly)

Jen Beverly, an assistant professor of wildland fire in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta, is keen to see the complete data at the end of the season. 

"I'm certainly looking forward to seeing the actual stats for this year," she said. "Anecdotally, the weather that we've had, it looks like that's a really key factor."

    People tend to start the most fires in spring and fall when conditions can be extremely dry, Beverly said.

    "We now have green conditions across the province. That certainly bodes well," she said. 

    "But that doesn't mean that we couldn't get into an extended drought period later this summer and end up with a bunch of lightning fires."

    While humans cause more wildfires, those fires tend to be smaller than the ones started by lightning, Beverly said.

    "When people start fires, there's often people present and so they can attempt to put the fire out or it gets reported really quickly," she said. "Those fires tend not to get big."

    Fire is a normal part of the forest ecosystem, but the province will always act to protect infrastructure, Gagnon said.

    "When wildfire is so close to people we have to take it into account," he said. "We have to protect the people of Alberta."

    Albertans also need to recognize their role in fire prevention and reduce their impact on the forest, Gagnon said. 

    "There is that responsibility to make sure that you're looking after it and that it's there for generations to come."

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    Josee St-Onge


    Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.


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