Crews prep for fires

A winter with below-average snowfall has led to drier forests and an increased hazard for wild fires in Alberta.

A winter with below-average snowfall has led to drier forests and an increased hazard for wild fires in Alberta.

Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight says the government is already putting crews in place to respond quickly if a forest fire strikes.

Aircraft, equipment and crews will be deployed at each of the 43 firefighting and 14 air-tanker bases in the coming weeks.

The province is also training more firefighters and is opening its 127 lookout towers.

Last year, crews were sent to more than 1,600 blazes — more than half of which were caused by human activity. Those fires burned nearly 670 square kilometres of land — an area roughly the size of Edmonton.

Ground moisture is about 80 per cent of normal in most of the province.

In an area around Red Deer stretching to Rocky Mountain House and beyond, winter precipitation has been 70 per cent of the normal level.

“But of course there’s a lot more that goes into wildfires than moisture level. There’s humidity, there’s temperature and all those things,” said Sustainable Resources Development spokesman Duncan MacDonnell. “What it means is be cautious, be more cautious than you normally would.”

Perry Dancause, operations manager of Air Spray Aviation Services in Penhold, said the situation is normal for their firefighting services at the moment, that they’re training for the fire season as usual and that they have yet to respond to any calls.

“I understand they’ve had a couple of fires out and about, but nothing they can’t handle with the ground people. It’ll be another couple of weeks and the farmer will start burning off his stubble field and it’ll get away on him (and Air Spray might be needed),” said Dancause.

Dancause said he believes the government’s fire hazard statistics, but that dry conditions and their inherent fire risk can change in a heartbeat.

Red Deer County district fire chief Dave Laurin agrees. He’s concerned about the “brown, dormant” grass but said it could all turn green — like it did last year — with a heavy, wet snow.

The wild fire season officially begins April 1.

Knight says the higher-than-normal risk also means that fire permits will now be required in all forest protection areas for any kind of burning other than a campfire.

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