A fairly wet spring has meant fewer wildfires than normal on the Prairies.
Saskatchewan has had about 65 wildfires, well below the province’s five-year average of about 120 by this time.
Alberta is reporting about 220 wildfires, compared to more than 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.
Fire fuels such as grasses, shrubs and twigs aren’t as dry and don’t catch fire as easily.
Most of the wildfires so far have required an immediate response from either crews on the ground or aircraft dropping water, but were easily extinguished.
It’s been a relief for fire crews after last year’s devastating Fort McMurray wildfires that forced 88,000 people to evacuate the region and burned 1,600 buildings, as well as Saskatchewan’s 2015 fire season that triggered the province’s largest evacuation in its history.
But fire officials aren’t taking anything for granted.
Things could turn quickly come summer.
The forecasting company Accuweather’s long-range forecast for Canada’s summer predicts July and August will be hot and dry in Western Canada, elevating the fire risk, particularly in northern parts of Alberta and British Columbia.
CBC’s senior meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe suggests it’s a bit too early to nail down such a definitive long-range forecast for the Prairies.
“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.
In Alberta, fire behaviour analysts and fuel crews — people who test conditions in the ground and trees — draft a long-term outlook, but officials make decisions day-to-day.
“Anytime 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. “Anytime 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 in Alberta and Saskatchewan remind people to check out their FireSmart programs and take precautions:
- Don’t start campfires when it’s too windy, hot or dry.
- Don’t leave campfires unattended, and always douse them properly.
- Prune trees and vegetation to create a safety zone around your house.
- Install fire-resistant shingles on your roof.
- Use off-road vehicles cautiously in dry grass.
- Learn how to do a safe burn before lighting grass, stubble or debris.