The annual Victoria Day long weekend trek to the West County is fast approaching.
People are cleaning their campers, stocking up on barbecue fixings and maybe fueling up an all-terrain vehicle depending on whether a fire ban is in place at intended destinations.
As of Tuesday, a fire ban and off-road vehicle restriction was still in place for parts of the Rocky Forest Area.
The ATV and fire ban no longer applied to the area west of Hwy 2 from Airdrie to Red Deer, and south of Hwy 11 from Red Deer to Hwy 22 and across to the B.C. border. Land south of Clearwater River straight down to the U.S. border is also free of the bans.
Bans were still in place to the north.
Don Livingston, approvals manager with Environment and Parks, said areas where the bans have been lifted is expected to be busy so more officers with the Clearwater Area Enforcement Task Force will be allocated there depending on the weather and if bans are eliminated in more places.
On Tuesday, Environment Canada forecast rain on Thursday and Friday in the Rocky Mountain House area, and cloudy with a 60 per cent chance of showers on Saturday and Sunday. Rain was also forecast for the Sundre area.
He said with such a warm spring, and the poor economy, more people have already been going camping so “cabin fever isn’t as bad as most years.”
“If it’s a real long spring where it’s snowy then it’s people’s first time to cut loose,” said Livingston, a task force member who has worked in the West Country for 22 years.
He said between 25,000 and 35,000 typically visit the region on the May long-weekend.
Despite the increase in visitors to the area over the years, the cleanup isn’t as bad and there’s fewer recreational fatalities and accidents, he said.
“Because we’ve been at this for quite a long time, I think people know there’s almost a cop behind every tree out here for the long weekend so things have gotten better.”
He said the area now attracts more families, but there are still young people who come out to celebrate graduation.
About 120 conservation officers, park rangers, fish and wildlife officers, RCMP, community peace officers, commercial vehicle enforcement officers, forest and land officers and sheriffs are part of the Clearwater Area Enforcement Task Force who will be out Thursday to Monday.
Task force members will regularly be on the job until after the Labour Day long-weekend in September.
He said most fines or tickets are issued for traffic safety offences, liquor breaches, and not possessing an off-road vehicle licence and registration.
Dr. Ifeoma Achebe, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services Central Zone, warned when it comes to all-terrain vehicles, children younger than 16 should not operate them.
“A lot of parents still allow their kids less than 16 years old to drive ATVs. They don’t have the skills or the judgment. We’ve seen that with the number of accidents that have been recorded in that age group. Even the ones that are marketed as child size.” Achebe said.
She said between April 19 and May 10 a total of 18 children were taken to hospital in Alberta due to injuries related to ATVs. Several were admitted to hospital and one died.
She said youth older than 16 should also be sure to have the proper training, wear the correct protective gear, buckle up, drive sober and seek help when they go on trails they don’t know well.
Other safety precautions in the outdoors include using mosquito repellent and wearing long sleeve shirts and pants; staying hydrated and protected for the sun by wearing sunscreen and a wide-rimmed hat; and reducing outdoor activities when necessary due to smoke from wildfires as a precautionary air quality advisory is still in place for the Central Zone.
“We don’t know what direction the wind is going to carry the smoke,” Achebe said.
Bruce Schollie, scout leader with Red Deer 18th Morrisroe Scouts, said his scouts in the West Country were the number of ticks they encountered last week when camping and rock climbing near Nordegg.
“There they were. Some of our guys were picking them off. One guy picked three off while they were at camp. My son picked one off at home that had started to embed in his leg,” said Schollie who never encountered ticks in Alberta before.
“Ticks were kind of a nuisance, but I don’t think anybody was too worried.”
The scouts made sure to set up their tents on dirt rather than grassy areas. They were careful about where they set down their gear and kept to trails as much as possible. They made sure to shake out their gear after their trip.
“We have some other activities planned. (Ticks) are not going to stop us. We’re going to be aware and be careful to make sure we’re watching and looking for them,” Schollie said.
Achebe said Alberta has a Submit-a-tick program as part of tick surveillance to check for blacklegged ticks that can carry the bacteria that causes lyme disease. For information go to www.health.alberta.ca/health-info/lyme-disease.html.