Wildfires more intense and more frequent in Alberta
Population shifts to wooded areas, aging forests, and changing weather all factors
Before the fires that devastated Slave Lake last year, Lac La Biche was the last community in Alberta to be destroyed by an out-of-control wildfire. It happened in 1919, when a massive blaze swept west from Saskatchewan across northern Alberta and burnt all but three of Lac La Biche’s buildings, killed 14 people, and torched more than two million hectares.
Fast-forward 93 years and wildfires are happening more frequently—and are more intense—across Alberta’s forested landscape. Diana McQueen, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said the province is preparing to battle the growing wildfire threat.
“As the forested communities in our province grows, so does the wildfire threat,” McQueen said at a recent news conference in Edmonton. “We’re also seeing earlier and dryer wildfire seasons … that means we have to be ready for a new reality of more and more intense wildfires.”
An independent panel recently released a report into the Slave Lake fire of last May that destroyed 428 single-family homes, seven multi-family residences, and 19 non-residential businesses, as well as destroying 56 homes in nearby communities.
With a reported $742 million in damages, it was the second-costliest disaster in Canadian history, after the ice storms that devastated eastern Canada in 1998.
Although the report stresses the need for wildfire prevention and preparedness, it also concluded that responders did all they could to save Slave Lake last year.
“Given the available resources and the conditions of the fire, our conclusion is we did not see any opportunity to employ other tactics to guarantee a different outcome without compromising responder safety,” said report committee chair Bill Sweeney at the press conference.
Sweeney said a population shift to Alberta’s forested areas, coupled with an aging boreal forest and hotter, dryer seasons, means that wildfires will only increase in the province. And that’s why prevention is being touted as the most important aspect of fighting wildfires.
MOST WILDFIRES ARE PREVENTABLE
Leslie Lozinski, Alberta ESRD Forestry Information Officer for the Lac Biche Region, said that 80 per cent of wildfires are human-caused.
“This year, most of the fires are human caused,” Lozinski said. “Which means that they have been 100 per cent preventable.”
The 2012 wildfire season got off to a roaring start, with blazes near Grassland and Bonnyville burning a combined 1,800 hectares earlier this month. In total, there have been 495 wildfires reported in the province this year, including 76 in the Lac La Biche area alone—the second busiest fire region in Alberta behind the Calgary area and by far the most destructive with a total of 1,858 torched hectares.
“With more people living near forests, it’s going to mean more activity, more quads, and more chances for wildfires,” Lozinski said.
CREATING DEFENSIBLE SPACE
The forestry information officer said that residents can take an active role in reducing the potential damage of wildfires. She recommends creating a 30-metre “defensible space” radius around a property. And a lot of wildfire protection is just basic home and property upkeep and common sense: mow and water your lawn regularly, don’t plant highly-flammable juniper and cedar trees near your home, trim the bottom branches off of trees on your property, and pay special attention to your roof.
“It’s important to clean out your eavestroughs and gutters,” Lozinski said. “A spark or ember can land in an eavestrough, then travel under the shingles—and asphalt shingles are better than wood shingles—and get into the attic.”
For more information on how to prevent wildfires and better protect your home and property in case of a wildfire, visit www.srd.gov.ab.ca or visit the Alberta SRD Forestry Division on Beaverhill Road in the Hamlet of Lac La Biche.
In order to post comments on our web site, you must validate your email address. An email was sent to you when you registered that included an activation link. If you have not yet done so, please click on the link to activate your account.
If you did not receive your activation email, please click here to have it resent.