Dry conditions prompt Rocky area to start wildfire preparations

For the fourth year in a row, the Rocky Mountain House Forest Protection Area is starting up wildfire preparations a month earlier, and already firefighters have had to respond to dry conditions.

For the fourth year in a row, the Rocky Mountain House Forest Protection Area is starting up wildfire preparations a month earlier, and already firefighters have had to respond to dry conditions.

A two-acre fire, caused by humans, was extinguished on Wednesday. In last year’s wildfire season, 60 per cent of wildfires in all of Alberta were human-caused.

Barry Shellian, area information co-ordinator for the Rocky Forest Area, said that the entire province is going into dry conditions, as witnessed by a large grass fire near Cochrane last week.

“We had a very warm and dry summer last year and a very mild winter this year.”

A number of fire bans, restrictions and advisories have already been declared in parts of Southern Alberta. In areas of the Rocky Forest where the snow has gone, the fire hazard is already moderate.

Shellian said the Rocky Forest Area is considered to be an older forest and it’s the driest he’s seen it because of accumulative dryer conditions.

“It’s dry enough that we can have a prescribed fire now.” Over Christmas there was a smaller fire that needed to be put out north of Rocky Mountain House by Medicine Lake.

That fire was also human caused and while people may think they can leave a ground fire to go out on its own, the material just below the surface is very dry, Shellian said.

Last year 128 wildfires burned 200 acres in the Rocky forest, which was a relatively small amount when compared with other forests, particularly in Northern Alberta. There were a total 1,785 wildfires in the province, that burned 1.2 million acres.

Starting the fire season a month early on March 1 allows Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to start bringing in the manpower resources, and now anyone doing burning in the forest protection area, except for campfires, needs a fire permit.

Shellian said he was digging a hole in his yard last week and “it’s powder dry underneath.” Pipeline and forestry workers have also been telling him the forest is dry.

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has already started to bring in about 100 firefighters over the next few weeks to the Rocky area. They are strategically stationed at air tanker bases located at the Rocky airport and Shunda.

The first few days are spent making sure they are properly equipped and up-to-date on training. They will jump right into helping on a prescribed fire in the Upper Clearwater area, and hazard reduction burning in the Nordegg area, weather permitting, Shellian said.

“Because we have a lot of values at risk — communities, resources and infrastructure — we are very proactive on hitting fires hard and fast.”

One of the largest recent wildfires seen in the Rocky forest area was the Spreading Creek fire in the summer of 2014. It grew to 22,000 acres, about 50 km west of Nordegg and south of Hwy 11, before it was extinguished.

barr@reddeeradvocate