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Efforts to extinguish 2023 wildfires continue, even as preparation is done for 2024


Preparation is underway in communities across Alberta to prevent the kind of devastation last year's wildfire season did, with all signs pointing to the coming season being just as disastrous. 

In one of Alberta's most northern communities, for about three weeks now, crews have been digging through snow to get at the remnants of the Paskwa Fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and pieces of infrastructure in Fox Lake on the Little Red River Cree Nation last summer. 

During a tour by Alberta Wildfire on Tuesday, firefighters – many local residents – tore holes in the snowpack with pickaxes and other equipment, loosing heat trapped underneath. 

As they moved across the land, they left a trail of smoking spots. 

According to the provincial department, which manages wildfire response in protected forest areas, 175 wildfires burned nearly 800,000 hectares in the High Level Forest Area in 2023. 

Sixteen of those – called carryover fires – have survived the winter and are being monitored by Alberta Wildfire. Crews have been assigned to work on hot spots that pose the greatest risk to communities, such as in the Fox Lake area. 

"Fire can dig deep into the ground, especially in this area there's deep layers of peat moss. Not only does it dig deep, but it can travel as well and re-emerge as a wildfire, so this work is to get ahead of that and prevent that from happening," explained Victoria Ostendorf, the information officer for the High Level Forest Area. 

Smoke rises from a hot spot near Fox Lake in northern Alberta on Feb. 6, 2024, as crews work in the area to extinguish the 2023 wildfire. (CTV News Edmonton / Miriam Valdes-Carletti)

Spring the real indicator of upcoming season 

In total, the 2023 wildfire season saw 1,088 wildfires burn 2.2 million hectares of land across Alberta

As of Wednesday, Alberta Wildfire was watching 54 carryover fires, "which is incredibly high," noted Alberta Wildfire's provincial information officer, Melissa Story. 

"Our five-year average is around six … so we're sitting at about 10 times as many as we usually see." 

She said the situation is a result of a record-breaking fire season in 2023 that kickstarted prematurely and was followed by an unseasonably warm summer, then a hot and dry fall, and less winter precipitation than usual. 

With Environment Canada forecasting a continuation of warmer temperatures and below-average precipitation through the late winter, Story is expecting the High Level Forest Area to again be at an elevated fire risk – but spring will be the determining factor. 

"If [the snow] melts really fast like it did last year and we see those above-average temperatures mixed with the winds, then we're going to see more wildfires on the landscape."

Smoke rises from a hot spot near Fox Lake in northern Alberta on Feb. 6, 2024, as crews work in the area to extinguish the 2023 wildfire. (CTV News Edmonton / Miriam Valdes-Carletti)

'We have a gap': county 

Parkland County's fire chief is very certain of this. 

"Everything from the snowpack, our drought codes, everything's indicating a very severe season," Brian Cornforth told CTV News Edmonton during an interview on Wednesday. 

The county counted 93 wildfire events in 2023. Multiple communities in the county were evacuated because of wildfires. The largest blaze – sparked by embers that floated from a smouldering brush fire started in November 2022 –  burned 6,200 acres between the end of April and mid-July. 

Although provincial resources can be dedicated to fires outside protected forest areas, local fire departments take the lead on wildfires within county lines. 

That's why Cornforth says it's time counties are trained in wildland firefighting and his has hired a private contractor – at its own expense – to teach local crews provincial strategies. 

"What we've seen over the last few years is we've moved from a grasslands firefighting strategy and we're now fighting fires in the wildland areas on initial attack, no different than [the forestry department] is," he said. 

"So we need that advanced training. We have a gap. And we've acknowledged that through many after-action reviews. 

"We have a responsibility to make our firefighters safe and effective and minimize our long-term costs." 

Parkland County took the lead on a resolution by the Rural Municipalities of Alberta to ask the provincial government for more wildfire support and a long-term strategy, including establishing suppression crews outside the protected forests and more FireSmart programming. 

"Provincially, we're looking for a more meaningful dialogue," he said Wednesday. 

Todd Loewen, the forestry and parks minister, told CTV News Edmonton, "we'll look for any available spots we have to see where we can fit them in," but wouldn't make a specific promise to provide training to municipalities. 

"We'll see on how things unfold here as we go along. Right now, we're in the process of training the people we have right now," Loewen said.

Cornforth is doubtful training spots will open before the wildfire season starts. 

In addition to the private training, he's arranging for Parkland County to have initial attack crews to be on standby, as well as contracted helicopter services. 

"We don't know statistically if it's our turn again. But we are prepared."

Loewen said the government's efforts have been focused on processing and training a record number of wildland firefighter applications, organizing equipment contracts, building fire guards near communities most at risk, and establishing a system to take on board volunteers with previous experience. 

The province is also planning on relying more on strategies started last year, like drones for thermal imaging and night vision technology to fight fires later into the night. 

Altogether, Loewen said he was confident about the preparations. 

"This year, we're making sure we're more prepared than we've ever been before for this upcoming season because – based on the weather patterns we've seen – we're expecting that."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Miriam Valdes-Carletti and Amanda Anderson Top Stories

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