Unseasonably warm weather, lack of rain and below average winter snowfall have turned the Prairies into a potential wildfire powder keg.
Sixty fires were burning in Alberta on Wednesday, which is four times the usual average for April, and 50 communities have imposed fire bans, including Edmonton. Manitoba has 35 active fires and has cancelled fire permits in parts of the province.
Fire crews and water bombers have been put into position weeks ahead of schedule to deal with the threat that is listed as high to extreme in some areas.
“We have prepositioned our resources in areas of highest hazard,” said Alberta wildfire specialist Anastasia Drummond. “In the coming days we are expecting very strong winds and these warm temperatures to persist.”
On Wednesday, a large brush and grass fire near Sherwood Park, east of Edmonton, closed a major road and forced an unknown number of residents to be evacuated from a rural subdivision.
The day before, the province called in water bombers to help control flames and smoke that drove more than 150 people from their homes on the Paul First Nation west of Edmonton. One house was destroyed. It wasn’t clear when residents can return home.
Crews in Saskatchewan have put out 32 wildfires in forested areas so far this year as the province deals with drier than normal conditions, especially in western parts of the province.
The greater danger in Saskatchewan is grass and brush fires below the northern forest zone, said Fire Commissioner Duane McKay.
Temperatures are high, humidity levels are low and grass and brush have not greened up because of the lack of moisture, he said. Those factors have combined to make many areas as dry as a tinder box.
All it takes is a simple spark from a tossed cigarette to ignite fires which spread quickly when fanned by the prairie wind, he said. Crews have already fought a number of these brush fires in recent days, including one on the outskirts of Saskatoon.
“We have seen a sharp increase in the number of grass and brush fires that are occurring,” McKay said. “Some of them have been very taxing for the fire departments to deal with.”
Manitoba is experiencing what it calls extremely dry and extremely volatile conditions.
The situation has prompted the government to deploy firefighting crews weeks earlier than normal to be ready in case things get worse.
”We haven’t had a general rain in Manitoba this year. The risk is higher than normal,“ said Gary Friesen of Manitoba’s Conservation Department.
“We are bringing fire crews on earlier. We are bringing our helicopters on earlier and we are bringing our water bombers on earlier. Everything is being adjusted to meet the demands right now.”
Until the weather improves, all wildfire officials can do is monitor conditions and be ready to react quickly whenever a fire breaks out.
There is also some frustration about the cause of the fires. Wildfires are usually caused by lightning strikes, but there has been almost no lightning activity across the Prairies recently.
Manitoba estimates that all but one of the fires it has dealt with this year have been caused by people.