Preparations for wildfire season start now

High atop a remote mountain west of Rocky Mountain House, a special unmanned camera helped monitor the province’s largest wildfire in the 2014 fire season.

High atop a remote mountain west of Rocky Mountain House, a special unmanned camera helped monitor the province’s largest wildfire in the 2014 fire season.

The camera, used for the first time in the Rocky Wildfire Management Area to keep an eye on the Spreading Creek wildfire, took photos every hour during daylights hours. The photos were then transmitted by satellite to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD).

Barry Shellian, a wildfire ranger in the Rocky Wildfire Management Area, said the camera was set up after the fire, caused by lightning, was deemed under control.

The 22,170-acre wildfire, west on Hwy 11 and on the west side of Abraham Lake, is still classified as under control by ESRD, and will continue be so into the 2015 Alberta wildfire season, which begins on March 1.

The natural wildfire, twice as large the next largest fire in the province last year, may still have hotspots burning, and there will be ground patrols and aircraft patrols using infra-red cameras in the new season, Shellian said on Friday.

The wildfire was discovered on July 3 and was managed by ESRD to keep within its natural boundaries.

Shellian said it is controlled by natural barriers — mountains, rivers and healthy forests — and they are confident it is under control if it is still burning within the boundaries.

The wildfire is on the north slope of a mountain, which for the most part is in the shade, cooler and wetter.

The camera has also been used to monitor prescribed burn areas, keeping an eye on weather conditions and when the snow is gone so they know when the best time is to burn an area, Shellian said.

The fire hazard in the Rocky forest is currently low, because there’s still snow on the ground and it’s cold.

Shellian, who began his career in 1984, said it’s a very important time for residents, landowners, industry to be checking on brush piles that have been burning throughout the winter.

“We want people to go check those out because they can smoulder in the ground for a long time, and that’s what people don’t always get, and I’ve learned this through my career, those fires we thought were out, they could be sitting there under the snow defying our basic knowledge.

“Who knows with this weather, it might be nice in a week from now and that’s when the fire season starts, March 1 to Oct. 31.

“We find most of our fires are on those shoulder seasons, in the spring and fall, because we haven’t got green-up yet. It’s all brown, the grass is still dry, so that’s where we’ll see some of our fast-moving fires.”

Snowfall in the Rocky forest has been average this winter, Shellian said.

The Rocky forest had 77 wildfires in 2014, with a total of 22,238 acres burned. Overall in Alberta last year, there were 1,437 fires (the five-year average is 1,493), and 57,123 acres burned (the five-year average is 669,419 acres).

As of March 1, fire permits are required for any burning in Alberta’s forest protection area, except campfires. These are free and can be obtained by contacting ESRD: Sundre at 403-638-3805; Rocky Mountain House at 403-845-8581; and Drayton Valley at 780-542-6616.

When checking winter burns, people should spread around any remaining debris and dig deep in the ashes to check for heat. A fire is not extinguished until there is absolutely no heat emanating from the ashes.

barr@bprda.wpengine.com

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