Wildfire season heats up as hot, dry conditions fuel risk in northern Alberta

This wildfire was classified as out of control as of Tuesday, July 2nd. It's burning out of control 47 kilometres west of Zama City, Alta. Airtankers surrounded it with fire retardant, containing the wildfire's spread.  (Alberta Wildfire - image credit)
This wildfire was classified as out of control as of Tuesday, July 2nd. It's burning out of control 47 kilometres west of Zama City, Alta. Airtankers surrounded it with fire retardant, containing the wildfire's spread. (Alberta Wildfire - image credit)

The Canada Day weekend in northern Alberta was also a rather fiery one.

As of Tuesday evening, 62 wildfires were burning in the province, including about 20 that are out of control.

Seventeen fires were concentrated in the High Level forest area, and two were in the Fort McMurray region.

Melissa Story, a wildfire information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said thunderstorms have sparked some of the fires in northern Alberta.

"So, we are responding to a number of lightning fires that have started in that area," she added.

Story said fire danger in the northern part of the province remains "high to very high."

"We are seeing those conditions that are conducive to wildfires starting easily and spreading quickly," she said.

"That does contribute to the wildfire situation that's happening up there, coupled with the lightning strikes that we have seen in that area."

Story said most wildfires in spring are caused by humans, but now the province begins to see more naturally ignited fires.

Between June 29 and July 2 there were 28 confirmed lightning starts, Story said.

Story said the "elevated fire behaviour" in the High Level forest area makes fire suppression efforts more difficult.

"We are doing everything that we can to get a handle on the fire situation that's happening up there," she said.

Memories of past fires

Story said that currently there are no communities under threat from wildfire.

But the residents of High Level are still quite anxious, said Crystal McAteer, High Level's mayor.

"No communities are being evacuated, but there is a lot of tension out there, because even though we have had rain, it's still very, very dry up here," she said.

McAteer said the smell of smoke and the sight of helicopters in the air brings back memories of past fires.

"They right away start calling and wondering what the conditions are, and how close the fire is."

Some fires are also burning in Wood Buffalo National Park, which is under federal jurisdiction. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were eight under control wildfires in the park, three that were being held and one listed as out of control.

Most fires in the national park are caused by lightning or are carry-overs from last year — fires that kept smoldering underground through the winter, said Alyssa Etsell, the wildfire information officer at the park.

July likely to be warm and dry

Justin Shelley, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said that while some scattered showers are possible in the Grande Prairie and Peace River region, conditions will be dry this weekend across the province.

"Most of the precipitation risk is going to be in the far north or the far east part of the province, "said Shelley. "But otherwise it's going to be pretty dry, no real threat of precipitation, especially over the western portions of the province for the weekend. And that trend will continue into next week as well."

July is trending toward being drier and warmer than usual, he added.

Story said that dryness contributes to fire risk in northern Alberta. While the region received some rains earlier this year, they weren't sufficient to mitigate the drought conditions there, she said.

"We're keeping an eye on things. Anytime the temperatures do go up — like they are going to — and the windy conditions that we're going to see, the fire danger is going to be elevated and then fire behaviour will be elevated as well."