'Crucial springtime': Why Alberta's wildfire season is off to a better start this year

The bar was low for a better wildfire season in Alberta this year after a record-shattering season in 2023, persistent drought conditions and expectations of high temperatures.

But the province weathered the crucial spring period, emerging in far better shape than it had at this point last year.

"Alberta, at this time right now, was in a very different place in 2023," said Christie Tucker, the information unit manager for Alberta Wildfire.

Around this time last year, there were 77 active wildfires in the province and roughly 1.7 million hectares had been burned, according to Alberta Wildfire.

As of 4 p.m. MT on Monday, there were 15 active wildfires and approximately 28,000 hectares burned.

Brian Proctor, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the expectations for this season were influenced by a multi-year drought and a warm winter.

"We had little snowpack for much of the province and we [were] in drought conditions, but conditions were waning on the El Niño side of things," Proctor said. "So it was looking like a more typical spring."

Forecasts are a combination of probabilities, and provincial fire authorities wanted to err on the side of caution when anticipating conditions for the 2024 wildfire season.

Alberta Wildfire recognized El Niño would affect Alberta until at least the spring — a season that "can be the most volatile time, if we're looking at conditions that are ripe for wildfire," said Tucker.

"If we were looking at those conditions again this year, we wanted to be prepared for the worst," she said.

There was reason for concern beyond the weather: there were 64 fires still burning in Alberta on Jan. 1. Tucker said the norm is closer to six.

Of those 64 fires, only five remain.

The spring is a critical period for wildfires. Grass, trees and other combustible material are dry before the more rainy month of June, and strong winds are often prevalent. A warm winter with a lack of snowpack only exacerbated Alberta's challenges for the year.

"We saw that a little bit even early this spring, when we saw [Fort] McMurray sort of flare up in the month of May, before some of that moisture got in there and really helped to dampen down conditions," said Proctor.

Thousands of Fort McMurray residents were ordered to evacuate in May due to an out-of-control wildfire. Rainfall and cool temperatures calmed the wildfire, allowing firefighters to make progress in containing it.

"We can measure things like the dryness of the soils and our anticipated precipitation and humidity — and all of those things certainly are major factors in what kind of wildfire season we have," said Tucker. "But … the biggest factor is going to be how much rain we get at that crucial springtime."

A highway camera photo shows traffic in FortMcMurray jammed in the southbound lane of Highway 63 on the north side of the Athabasca River. The image was captured at 3:11 p.m. MT, about an hour after an evacuation order was issued for four neighbourhoods.
A highway camera photo shows traffic in FortMcMurray jammed in the southbound lane of Highway 63 on the north side of the Athabasca River on May 14, about an hour after an evacuation order was issued due to wildfire. (511 Alberta)

As the seasons shift into summer, the wildfire situation changes as well. More green vegetation helps reduce the wildfire risk to some degree.

"If you think about putting a green log on a campfire, it's going to not burn as well as if you put a dead, dry log on top of a campfire — and that will really go up," said Tucker.

This is also the time in the season when a shift appears in the cause of wildfires, with fewer human-caused fires and an increase in the number due to lightning strikes. Lightning-caused fires also tend to occur in more remote areas.

'Fairly normal' precipitation forecasted

The weather remains a key factor, however.

With no strong climate feature such as the warming El Niño, or the cooling La Niña, Alberta's temperatures should be closer to average than last year, Proctor said. But precipitation is harder to predict.

July and August tend to be "fairly dry," he said. Any rainfall is often "very showery," sporadic and scattered.

"I don't have a ton of confidence in our precipitation forecast other than to suggest it should be fairly normal conditions," he said.

Drought conditions in much of Alberta have relented due to more precipitation, but the far northwest region is still quite dry.

"That's where things are really problematic for us moving forward," said Proctor. "The remainder of the province is probably trending better at this point in time."

Tucker said the recent rainfall and the approaching summertime have brought "a bit of relief." But she cautioned that fires must always be taken seriously, regardless of the level of fire risk.

"Always be vigilant when out and about in the forest," she said. "A wildfire can start literally at any time of year."