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Wildfire risk spurs planners


Advocate staff

With snow still blanketing most of Central Alberta as the long weekend hit, it is tough to be thinking about potential wildfire risk.

The Alberta Environmental and Sustainable Resource Development branch in Rocky Mountain House has already been planning for this year’s season for months.

They’ve been preparing for controlled burns, expanding their online presence and have been out in the public running workshops.

More of the white stuff may still be in the forecast for this coming week, but the ESRD will not be caught unaware when conditions go tinder dry.

“It depends on what Mother Nature provides us, she’s often unpredictable,” said Barry Shellian, a wildfire ranger and information officer with ESRD. “There has been a significant amount of snow this year, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next few weeks as to what Mother Nature will deliver us.”

Though he does warn we are hitting the season known as Spring Hazard, where dry grass and old growth is more susceptible to sparks because it has not been replaced by new green foliage yet.

Last week at the Rocky Co-op, they held a Family FireSmart and Tree Pruning workshop in cooperation with Clearwater County where they stressed important tips to fire prevention surrounding their property. Pruning is a key component of that, to clear out old, dry overgrowth, or perfect fuel for wild fires

The importance of this type of prevention was hammered home with the 2011 wildfires that engulfed the town of Slave Lake.

“Slave Lake was a catastrophic even for a lot of people,” said Shellian. “We’re being even more proactive with FireSmart now.”

Prescribed burns also play an important role in prevention of future tragedy.

Almost the entirety of the province is a fire dependant eco system, meaning for centuries nature in Alberta has sustained itself through wildfires. Due to the long, cold winters, there is limited opportunity for natural decay to take place. Wild fires are essential in breaking down old growth and returning nutrients to the ground for new growth. Pine cones, for example, need to be super-heated in a fire in order to disperse their seeds.

Shellian encourages people to go to sites where there has been a prescribed burn and watch how the area naturally rehabilitates to a healthier state.

But with a human population now spread out through the region, for safety sake, a helping hand is needed. Last year, 90 per cent of wildfires in the province were caused by humans, meaning 90 per cent of wild fires were preventable.

This year FireSafe is planning potentially five fires, depending on how weather conditions go.

“You’d be surprised how fast grass and small plants grow back,” said Shellian.

For those out in the wilderness, ESRD has created three apps tailored to your use.

Their smartphone geared Alberta Wildfire app was rolled out last year for iPhones and has now been developed for Android systems this year. It is an all purpose app geared for industry, recreationalists and landowners, delivering up to date information on fire hazards, fire bans and current wildfires. It also simplifies the process for reporting wildfires. It is available through iTunes.

FireWeb is an online application for the emergency industry designed to assist in determining potential wildfire behaviour to facilities and infrastructure, providing accurate, real-time information.

The third app is the FireSmart Field Guide for Upstream Oil and Gas. This online guide is tailored specifically to the oil and gas industry to help in wildfire assessment risk to help prevent wildfire and reduce the risk to industry infrastructure, operations, personnel safety, liability and the environment.

“I just want to know what’s going on in the world around me, what affects me, so when people see the smoke, there could be cause for alarm because surprises are always difficult for people, by having this proactive app, people will understand what’s going on,” said Shellian.

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