There may still be snow on the ground, but the province is already gearing up for wildfire season, which officially begins on March 1st.
Preparations include getting crews, aircraft and equipment in place and deploying them to Alberta’s Forest Protection Area as required.
Training is also underway for new firefighting personnel and Alberta’s lookout towers are being staffed.
“For the first couple of weeks, with lookout observers and firefighters, we’ll have about 150 people,” said Geoffrey Driscoll, wildfire information officer with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
“We’re going to slowly increase the amount of people as the wildfire hazard increases and as we get closer to summer.”
Driscoll said by the beginning of May, the province will have 500 firefighters at the ready, with access to another 1,500 on an emergency basis. And more firefighting personnel can be requested across Canada, in the United States, even Mexico.
In addition, businesses with industrial or commercial operations — such as rail, lumber and oil and gas companies — in forested areas must ensure their emergency response and wildfire management systems are updated and prepared to respond to potential wildfire situations, he said.
That includes having a phone number that wildfire officers can reach if there is a fire, having an evacuation plan, and taking steps to prevent fires, such as checking off-road vehicles for debris near the exhaust or engine areas.
Between March 1st and Oct. 31, anyone in the Forest Protection Area who plans to do any type of burning, with the exception of lighting campfires, must obtain a permit. They are free and can be requested at any Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development office.
People or companies found responsible for starting a wildfire could be on the hook for the cost of battling the blaze, and could also face fines under the Forest and Prairie Protection Act.
“If you’re going to get caught as the one who started the fire, you’re going to get the bill,” he said, adding these emergencies can quickly add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Driscoll said those who live or visit the province’s forests are being reminded to take care while burning.
“Fire can spread incredibly fast especially through dry areas with dry brown grass where the leaves from the fall are still on the ground. And with wind, it can get very big very fast,” he added.
During the 2014 wildfire season, the province responded to more than 1,400 wildfires in the Forest Protection Area, of which more than 60 per cent was caused by human activity. Driscoll said 23,117 hectares was burned — roughly one-third the size of the city of Edmonton.
The year before, the province responded to 1,215 fires, which burned 19,574 hectares.
The five-year average is about 1,493 wildfires per year, with 270,000 hectares burned in the last five years.
“The last two years have been relatively quiet years in terms of numbers of fires and numbers of hectares burned. But the point is, we have big years and we have small years. The other point is that we have fires that affect Albertans. And the numbers don’t correlate to how much it affects Albertans,” Driscoll said.