By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Winter is here but as of Dec. 31, 62 wildfires were still active in Alberta in a year that saw 10 times more area burned than the five-year average.
While the province experienced an average number of wildfires – a total of 1,088 – those blazes burned 22,000 square kilometres (2.2 million hectares) from March 31 to Oct. 31.
According to the Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard, there are five current-year wildfires burning, one each in the Calgary, Grande Prairie and High Level forest areas and two in the Lac La Biche forest area. The amount of area burned in any one area is at most half a hectare.
The fire situation last year has prompted the provincial NDP to ask the Alberta government to immediately establish a joint wildfire task force that will include representatives from provincial and municipal governments and firefighter unions. The Official Opposition is also asking for a seat on the task force.
The task force, said NDP critics Heather Sweet and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse in a letter to Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen, “should begin providing regular updates to Albertans in February, before fire season begins, on the proactive work that is being done to limit the damage and risk of wildfires.”
The NDP said drought conditions in the province will likely increase the fire risk across the province. The fire situation is due to climate change, says the NDP, with 80 per cent of the hectares burned in 2023 – 1.75 million – being caused by lightning.
The NDP also wants the province to negotiate with Ottawa on an insurance program to protect agricultural producers.
“The loss of crops in 2023 due to fire was immense and clearly our producers need to be able to proactively protect their livelihoods,” says the letter.
In a phone interview this week, Calahoo Stonehouse – the critic for Environment, Parks and Climate Resilience – said one way to prevent wildfire damage is by doing prescribed burns, an ancient practice of First Nations that will protect not only forests, but crops, communities and animals.
Prescribed burns are fires that are intentionally started by fire specialists which can have several objectives including habitat enhancement, disease eradication or preparation for tree planting.
They are used to restore health to ecosystems.
The number of fires is concerning, she said.
“There just isn’t enough moisture so considering what we saw last summer, last spring, we’re really pushing for the government to be pro-active rather than reactive. Throwing money at relief is just not responsible and that’s why we issued the letter,” said Calahoo Sweetgrass, MLA for Edmonton-Rutherford.
The task force could accomplish several things, including transparency on reporting to Albertans on what work is being done and what has been done, the MLA said.
“We can start to mitigate some of the horrors that we experienced last year. With this task force, by engaging with citizens – ranchers, farmers, folks who have experience with fires, we can learn from folks what works, what didn’t work so that way we have a strategy to prevent harm to people, home, lands, their farms, to their herds and protect Albertans and crops,” said Calahoo Stonehouse.
“We must adapt and prepare to deal with the reality of climate change,” she added.
The letter has gotten no response yet from the Minister, said the MLA.
Calahoo Stonehouse said with the drought conditions and record low levels of moisture and precipitation, there are serious concerns.
“How are we going to fight fires without water?”
The MLA said innovative approaches exist in mitigation to reduce harm. Prescribed burns are among them.
“We can remove brush, dry brush, we can do work ahead of time. We can prepare the firefighters; we can do emergency training, we can prepare for evacuation. There are things we need to be doing. We need to be proactive to reduce the harm to farms, to crops, to animals, to birds and keep as much of the water protected as well.
Prescribed burns were a historic practice to keep communities safe, she said.
“We didn’t have firetrucks and emergency service responders. We had to be able to protect the herds, the buffalo herds and prescribed burning is an ancient tactics we used to protect the crops, the gardens, the communities, the animals. And it certainly is a tactic that needs to be implemented,” said Calahoo Stonehouse.
“We are going to have to do things that are unprecedented because we are headed into unprecedented times,” she said.
“And we need to also think about the carbon that is released from the forest fires,” added the MLA.