The 2019 Alberta wildfires have taken a serious toll on the northern part of our nation’s fourth largest province.
As we’ve already made it through nearly two weeks of flames engulfing thousands of hectares of land, many wonder when the latest natural disaster will come to an end, hopeful that it be sooner rather than later.
As of May 22, more than 130,000 hectares having been caught ablaze already. With many fires across the northern part of the province being deemed “out of control,” estimates vary as to just how much land the fires currently span.
A brief wildfire history
These are not the first fires that Alberta has faced, and as of now, far from the worst. Since 2011, wildfires have easily cost the province over 10 billion dollars. As far as severity goes, the 2019 fires pale in comparison to those of a few years back, at the nearby 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires.
The 2017 British Columbia wildfires didn’t lay off either, with Central and South Interior B.C., as well as western parts of western Alberta. Those fires, which led to the evacuation of 65,000 people across both provinces. With those fires costing an estimated $586 million, the cost of wildfires has been more than a pretty penny.
2017 led to more destruction in the form of wildfires, with a smaller fire that caused 14 homes to be evacuated on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Those fires were believed to be caused by downed power lines during a storm.
British Columbia received the worst from fires in 2018, when 1.2 million hectares caught fire in what was the largest total burn-area in any B.C. wildfire season, far surpassing the fires of 2017.
Heading into the 2019 wildfire season, officials knew of the potential risks that they were up against. To compare to last year’s May long weekend, Alberta Wildfire had recorded 119 wildfires, with 67% of them being caused by people.
According to the timeline of Alberta Wildfire, a website which provides updates and information of wildfire status’ and issues related to wildfires across Alberta, the first signs of trouble appeared on May 12, 22 kilometres northwest of Notikewin in the Peace River Forest Area. A 778-hectare wildfire garnered attention and was accessed to be a potential threat, as high-risk conditions, such as windy weather and dry conditions, were already at play.
Fire bans and off-highway vehicle restrictions were put into place for areas in northern Alberta in an effort to curve the threat of wildfires, especially manmade ones.
On May 18, the fire continued to grow in size, as a fire labelled HWF042 located about 20 kilometres south of the town of High Level. This fire, at about 1,817 hectares in size, was also classified as “out of control” due to the high winds coming from the southeast.
At the time, Alberta Wildfire reported that there was no threat to the community of High Level, as firefighters along with air support from helicopters and air tankers were working against the fire.
While other fires popped up around the province, newly elected Alberta Premier Jason Kenney attempted to console and assure the province that the necessary precautions were being taken.
“I’m here at the provincial operation centre, which is where the government of Alberta, along with federal agencies, coordinate responses to emergencies such as the wildfires that are happening right now at four locations in Northwestern Alberta,” stated Kenney alongside the Minister of Municipal Affairs Kaycee Kaycee Madu, as well as Devin Dreeshen, the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.
It was around this time that the community of Bushe River was also forced to evacuate, as ordered by Chief and Council of the Dene Tha First Nation.
It was only days after when the same community of High Level was forced to evacuate their homes, making 4,000 flee their town to ensure their own safety. Many from High Level went to the town of Slave Lake, with others being directed to communities hundreds of kilometres south of where they were, such as High Prairie, Grande Prairie, as well as Misery Mountain Ski Resort.
Meanwhile, the Chuckegg Creek wildfire, an inferno that swallowed 25,334 hectares overnight, totalling 650 km² of forest, became a very serious concern.
At this point, the British Columbia Wildfire Service sent over 250 staff to their neighbouring province of Alberta in an attempt to stop out the unruly blaze. The 250 staff included 230 firefighters, 14 supervisors, a 19 person incident management team, and three agency representatives in hopes to slow the fire in its tracks. All of this at the request of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, who are responsible for sharing of firefighting resources between B.C. and other jurisdictions.
Premier Kenney stated that he had been briefed that the number of active fires currently in Alberta is “at or just slightly above the five-year average.”
Kenney went on to remind Albertans that forest fires are a natural occurrence in northwest Canada, and officials said that the High Level fire is the first of its kind in around 80 years.
“Part of this is just burning off decades of accumulated fuel,” Kenney said. “It’s inevitable, it’s going to happen at some point. What’s different now in 2019 is that we have more built up communities in frontier areas like this.”
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke
Throughout the fires, air quality was a serious concern, because as we all know, breathing in smoke is not good for you!
An air quality advisory was put in effect, with officials advising those with breathing conditions to stay indoors and find well-ventilated places, including those in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. This fire had now not only affected Alberta, but B.C., and the Northwest Territories as well.
Ontario also answered Alberta’s call for assistance, displaying over 80 personnel to help with the forest fire situation.
Fires continue to pop up
On May 26, yet another fire, this time 14 kilometres southeast of Trout Lake, spawned overnight. This time, a 300-hectare fire, also being deemed out of control. Due to this, the Peerless Trout First Nation had to issue an emergency alert, as fires rapidly approached the Chipewyan Lake Village, Bigstone Cree Nation, and all residents from the northern border of the County of Northern Lights. More information can be found live, here.
With wildfires continuing to roar in Alberta, and prompting more evacuation orders on Wednesday, the Kenney government has officially declared the situation both a public emergency and a disaster.
For a live map of where the 2019 Albertan wildfires are impacting which communities, click here.