EDMONTON — Alberta was calling for firefighting reinforcements as wildfires sparked by lightning strikes threatened to isolate Fort McMurray — Canada’s oilsands capital.
The province already had more than 600 people fighting 17 out-of-control fires — some of which forced the temporary closure of Highway 63 south of the northern Alberta city. Alberta Transportation officials reopened the highway Tuesday afternoon, but warned it could close again at anytime.
Motorists were urged to use Highway 881, the only other major route into the area.
Rob Harris of Sustainable Resource Development said Alberta has requested up to 200 more firefighters from across Canada and Mexico.
“The majority of the firefighters that will be coming into the province will be dispatched to active fires,” Harris said.
“That is going to help us bring those fires under control quickly and at the same time help us to put additional resources on standby so that they can respond to new wildfires that are detected as quickly as possible.”
Alberta also asked for five more air tankers to bolster 22 water bombers and 70 helicopters that were already fighting the fires.
Ontario was to send 116 firefighters on Thursday and the Northwest Territories government said it would send a team of 35 people. New Brunswick was sending 10 people and Mexico was contributing a crew of 21.
The extra water bombers were to come from Ontario and Quebec.
Much of the forest north of Edmonton is tinder-dry because of meagre snowmelt and virtually no rain this spring.
Warm weather and a massive number of lightning strikes — 70,000 since the weekend alone — have combined to make the region a potential power keg.
The lightning strikes can spark fires beneath the ground that smoulder for days, but which can then morph into wildfires under certain conditions.
Harris said dealing with the situation is all about containing new wildfires very quickly before they get out of control. There were 77 wildfires burning in Alberta on Tuesday.
“If we continue to receive hot, dry weather and no form of relief in terms of rain in the next few days, it certainly could elevate to an emergency situation. ”
“There have been 25 per cent more fires this year compared to our five-year average.”
Health officials in the Fort McMurray area were warning people to take precautions to deal with the heavy smoke that has been drifting in from the wildfires. Air quality was rated as being fair to poor.
People with respiratory conditions and cardiac conditions were being told to remain indoors, keep their windows closed and limit outdoor physical activity.
Officials said people with severe respiratory diseases should consider leaving the region until the smoke clears.
Alberta Transportation was warning motorists that while Highway 881 was open, traffic was moving slowly, and the route could be closed at any time depending on the wildfires.
Saskatchewan Environment reported 46 new forest fires in the province Tuesday, including 11 that were out of control.
Spokeswoman Val Nicholson said the fires were being fought by 450 people and did not pose a threat to any communities.
Parks Canada said a fire in Prince Albert National Park that was close to conservationist Grey Owl’s historic cabin was no longer a threat.