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Alberta moves up start date for wildfire season, fire season now underway

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Alberta is declaring an early start to the 2024 wildfire season.

The legislated wildfire season runs March 1 to Oct. 31, but Todd Loewen, minister of forestry and parks, announced Tuesday the fire season is now underway as a result of warmer-than-normal temperatures and below-average precipitation.

"I know Albertans are feeling uneasy about the risks posed to their homes, communities and daily lives. I understand these concerns and I share them as someone whose home was near the forest and was threatened by wildfire in 2023," he told reporters. "So as of today, a permit is required for any burning plan in the forest protection area."

There are currently 54 wildfires burning in Alberta, 52 of those fires started in 2023.

"Preparations for the 2024 wildfire season have been underway for months," Loewen said. "Alberta currently has adequate firefighters and support staff ready to respond to wildfires across our landscape."

If passed, the upcoming provincial budget will include funding to hire 100 additional new firefighters, which would be deployed as five additional 20-person crews.

The province currently has 900 firefighters ready to come online by April 15.

The additional staff would be hired, trained, and ready to go by May 15, according to Loewen.

While the number of firefighters will likely be increased this year, it's unclear if it will be enough.

By June 2023, more than 2,400 people had come from other provinces and countries to help fight the fires.

Loewen calls the exchange common practice.

"Just like any bad wildfire season in Alberta, and just about every jurisdiction in the world, if the capacity isn't there, then we rely on other jurisdictions, just like other jurisdictions rely on us when they have a bad fire season."

"If we see the need, we will be asking for wildfire firefighters from across the country and across the world as needed."

In addition to hiring new staff, the province says opportunities will be provided for anyone with firefighter training or heavy equipment to become involved in the firefighting process.

"When a fire is near a community, people in that community want to do everything they can to help out. And we want to make sure that we facilitate that rather than hinder that," Loewen commented.

In 2023 many residents complained they were forced out of their communities when they wanted to help fight the fires.

"Anybody that's brought in to help will work with experienced wildfire firefighting staff that we have right now," Loewen said. "In the past, there was never a program that we could quickly run through some quick training and some testing to make sure that they were suitable and able to help out in a safe manner. And so we've changed that."

"When it comes to equipment, the local equipment contractors could contact their local forestry office and be able to sign up to put their equipment to work, again in a safe manner."

In 2023 1,094 fires burned a record 2.2 million hectares in Alberta.

More than 38,000 people were forced out of their homes, and the province declared a state of emergency.

On Tuesday afternoon, the opposition NDP responded to the UCP government's firefighting plan.

"Clearly the UCP have not learned from their mistakes and are releasing a wildfire plan only 10 days before the 2024 season officially begins," Heather Sweet, NDP critic for agriculture, forestry, and rural economic development said in a news release.

"We are behind on training and staffing, and the UCP’s lack of preparation hampers our first responders' ability to effectively handle wildfire, especially in an era when climate change is only going to make wildfire seasons more unpredictable."

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees also spoke out earlier this month, claiming the province is failing to recruit and maintain wildfire firefighters.

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