When Barry Shellian first saw the wildfire in the distance just west of Nordegg on Tuesday, he realized by the colour of the smoke just how dry it is in the West Country right now.
The wildfire ranger, who was the first responder, saw black smoke instead of the often white smoke from forest fires.
Black smoke can indicate one of two things: either something human-made is burning, such as vehicle tires, or it’s a really dry forest fuel that’s burning very hot and quickly. It was the latter.
As he arrived, calling first for help to fight the wildfire that occurred about 2 p.m. adjacent to Hwy 11, “Immediately I saw the fire sweep through, and start channeling and going up the trees.” Conditions were sunny and quite windy.
“Wind is what really drives fire that makes matters harder,” said Shellian.
“I did see very aggressive fire behaviour.” He said it reminded him that even though it is turning green now, there’s a lot of dry grass out there.
“Unwanted wildfires can be catastrophic because they’re the ones that threaten communities,” he said.
The seven-acre wildfire, about three km west of Nordegg in a stand of spruce trees, was brought under control.
It was the 38th of 39 wildfires in the Rocky Wildfire Management Area so far in the wildfire season that began March 1. It was caused by humans.
While about 60 per cent of Alberta wildfires are caused by humans, the Rocky forest area — now filling up with thousands of long weekend campers — sees about 90 per cent of its wildfires as human caused, Shellian said.
It’s very dry out there and the wildfire weather index hazard is high. Fire permits were suspended on Wednesday and no new permits will be issued until conditions allow. Campfires may be restricted in the coming days if conditions worsen.
There were three fires in the area on Tuesday — the one near Nordegg, a small wildfire north of Rocky they believe was also human caused, and a Clearwater County grass fire about six km east of Rocky outside the forest management area.
People should make sure they have their campfires contained and in a pit and that they have tools and water handy, Shellian said.
The province offers the free smart phone app, Alberta Wildfire, that provides information such as the location of fires.
A prescribed fire was tentatively planned today in the South Idlewilde area along the Clearwater River, with the intention of restoring foraging habitat for elk and other ungulates. The area is about 55 km southwest of Rocky and 60 km west of Sundre.
Despite the high wildfire hazard, they can proceed, weather permitting, because it can be controlled with ignition patterns, and there are natural barriers to control and manage the fire, Shellian said. Such fires are several years in the planning.
Shellian, who is based in Rocky Mountain House, said long weekend traffic on Hwy 11 was steady as early as Tuesday.
He’s been there 13 years and said the number of people heading into the West Country has been gradually increasing over the years. Eighty per cent of Alberta’s population lives within two and a half hours of the area.
“I’m sitting here right now watching travel trailers go past me, up that way, and it’s only Wednesday.”