Prairie fire crews see slow start to wildfire season, but brace for hot, dry summer

A wet spring has meant fewer wildfires in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but fire officials aren't taking anything for granted. Some long-range forecasts predict a hotter and drier than normal summer on the Prairies.

Fire officials expect wildfire activity to increase in July and August

Flames from a wildfire approach trees near the airport in La Ronge, Sask., in July 2015. (Corey Hardcastle)

A fairly wet spring has meant fewer wildfires than normal on the Prairies.

Saskatchewan has had about 50 wildfires so far this year, which is well below the province's five-year average of 103 wildfires by this time of year.

We're prepared to tackle whatever fire season is put in front of us.- Steve Roberts, Sask. wildfire management

Alberta is reporting just over 200 wildfires, compared to 500 by this time last year. 

"This spring, we've received a lot more rain, we've had a lot more moisture, so it's been a lot wetter of a spring," wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather said from inside Alberta's wildfire command centre in Edmonton.

That means fire fuels — such as grasses, shrubs and twigs — aren't as dry and don't catch fire as easily.

Alberta wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather is happy to see a wet season but says crews are prepared for a hot, dry summer. (CBC)

Most of the wildfires so far have required an immediate response from either crews on the ground or aircraft dropping water from above, but were easily extinguished.

It's been a relief for fire crews after last year's devastating Fort McMurray wildfire, which forced tens of thousands of people to flee the city.  

But things could turn quickly come summer.

The weather forecasting company Accuweather has issued its long-range forecast for Canada's summer. It predicts July and August will be hot and dry across the Prairies, elevating the fire risk — particularly in northern parts of Alberta and B.C.

Weather forecasting company Accuweather issued its long-range forecast for Canada's summer. (Accuweather)

CBC's senior meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe suggests it's a bit too early to nail down a definitive long-range forecast.

"We are really waiting to see what happens with a building El Nino," Wagstaffe said. "There is still a chance we could be looking at a hot and dry forecast for the Prairies, but there are still a few factors up in the air."

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Saskatchewan's wildfire management director, Steve Roberts, isn't alarmed by the forecast and expects it to be just slightly warmer and drier. He notes that his department will be ready for anything.

"We prepare aircraft, our crews, our equipment so that we're prepared to tackle whatever fire season is put in front of us, whether it's few fires, lots of fires, big fires, small fires," Roberts said from the Prince Albert wildfire centre.

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In Alberta, fire behaviour analysts and so-called 'fuel crews' — people who test conditions in the ground and trees — draft a long-term outlook, but officials make decisions day-to-day.

"Any time you start seeing a couple days with no rain, high winds, you're going to see some of those finer fuels — grasses, twigs, branches — start to dry out," Fairweather said. "Any time you get those conditions, fires start easier and spread quickly."

At least half of all wildfires, and nearly all of the ones that spark early in the season, are started by people. 

Fire officials are reminding people to take precautions, including: 

  • Don't start campfires when it's too windy, hot or dry.
  • Don't leave campfires unattended and always douse properly.
  • Prune trees and vegetation to create a safety zone around your house.
  • Install fire-resistant shingles on your roof.
  • Be cautious with off-road vehicles in dry grass.
  • Learn how to do a safe burn before lighting grass, stubble or debris.


Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC