Fire season starts: what it means to you

As of March 1, Albertans will need to obtain a fire permit for brushpile burning.
As of March 1, Albertans will need to obtain a fire permit for brushpile burning.

Joe McWilliams
For Spotlight

Fire season in Alberta started on March 1 and looking around at the snow-covered landscape, you might think: ‘Fire season? ‘Give me a break!’

That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another one. A week or two ago, somebody visiting a remote lake in the Slave Lake Forest Area saw smoke coming out of the ground. They called 310-FIRE. The forest protection folks from the Wabasca office of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (formerly ESRD) checked it out and sure enough, it was a fire smouldering away underground. The snow and cold of winter wasn’t bothering it at all.

“It was an abandoned campfire,” says Leah Lovequist, information officer for the Slave Lake district. “It had burned a 20 by 20-metre area. There was all kinds of blowdown in the area.”

Such fires can survive through an entire winter, underground. Come spring, on a warm windy day, the fire can emerge, flare up, catch on in the grass or other material and turn into a forest fire. It’s been known to happen.

This particular incident was at God’s Lake, which to many is in the middle of nowhere. It could just as easily happen south of High Prairie, say, on a brushpile burning site. Lovequist says there are always a few such burns that are not properly put out. Starting with fire season on March 1 (instead of the traditional April 1), among other things, means,” all fires have to be extinguished” by that date. Every fire (excluding campfires) has to be permitted after that point.

Knowing where the permits are, Lovequist continues, means firefighting resources can be focused on reports of smoke where there aren’t registered burning permits. Having a permit means you won’t have a crew showing up to put out your fire. Not having one could very well mean you’ll not only have the crew showing up, but a bill for it later.
The permits are free, and can be picked up at the offices in Wabasca (780-891-3860), High Prairie (780-523-6619) and Slave Lake (780-849-7377).

As for the actual fire risk in the month of March, it’s obviously not high, but not out of the question.

“We’ve already had six wildfires this winter,” Lovequist says.

Conditions being what they are – mild winter, not much snow, dry ground – chances are good crews will be responding to grass fires earlier rather than later. Having all crews in place and trained up in March, means they’ll be fully prepared to respond to whatever comes up in April. Or even in March. If the trend of little snowfall and warm temperatures continues, grassfire season could be much earlier than usual.

“You never know what it’s going to do,” says Lovequist. “It depends on spring rains.”

Last year was busier than average in the Slave Lake district, with 263 fires. Provincially there were 1,830, about 400 above the five-year average. Just less than 500,000 hectares was burned, almost double the five-year average.

The district maintains three bases for its primary wildfire response – High Prairie, Slave Lake and Wabasca – each with two four-person ‘helitack’ crews. These people are all in place and will be training up during the month of March. Their job is to jump in a helicopter and get to the scene of a reported wildfire fast, putting it down before it gets too big. That works in a lot of cases, but obviously not in others.

Later in the spring, the 20 fire lookout towers in the district will be manned. Air tanker base resources will be coming on also later in the spring.

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