Alberta government to fully staff wildfire crew earlier after last year's record-breaking season

Firefighters travel through an area of Alberta forest ravaged by fire. Officials are warning that fire conditions will grow increasingly volatile in the province this weekend.  (Alberta Wildfire - image credit)
Firefighters travel through an area of Alberta forest ravaged by fire. Officials are warning that fire conditions will grow increasingly volatile in the province this weekend. (Alberta Wildfire - image credit)

Alberta Wildfire is hiring more firefighters and expects to be fully staffed two weeks earlier than the 2023 season where wildfires burned a record 2.2 million hectares across the province.

"We should be fully staffed by April 15th which is moving it up a couple weeks earlier than normal," Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said in an interview this week.

Although fire season officially starts March 1, Alberta Wildfire doesn't typically  have full staff and equipment ready to go until the beginning of May.

Last year's fire season changed that.

Wildfires started early last year due to dry conditions and windy, warm weather. The province declared a provincial state of emergency on May 6. More than 38,000 people were forced to leave their homes over the course of the summer.

The province faced criticism for past staffing cuts and for not appearing ready for what turned out to be an unprecedented season which saw large fires burning across the province simultaneously.

Loewen said his ministry is hiring more seasonal firefighting staff this year and signing contracts to lock down aircraft operators for the season.

Alberta Wildfire is also looking to expand the use of technology such as helicopters equipped with night vision and drones capable of doing thermal imaging to check hotspots in the overnight hours.

"There's a lot of things that we've changed and we just want to make sure that that we're prepared for this season coming up," he said.

The Buck Creek wildfire, which affected  Drayton Valley and Brazeau County, started as a small grassfire on April 23. The fire grew due to strong winds and very hot and dry conditions, eventually forcing all of Drayton Valley to evacuate for nearly two weeks in early May.

The town lost several homes in the blaze. Brazeau County, which bases its operations in Drayton Valley, lost two of 82 homes in the fire-affected area.

'Little dogs' in a big fight

Brazeau County has hired a third-party consultant to review the 2023 response.

The county, southwest of Edmonton, is partly in the forest protection (green) zone, which is under the responsibility of Alberta Wildfire.

Municipal firefighters are responsible for wildfires in the "white zone," which is outside those areas. Municipalities can request help from provincial crews but the need was so overwhelming last year, they were left on their own.

Reeve Bart Guyon said the split between the green and white zones in Brazeau County is about half and half.  The county ended up spending $10 million on the 2023 firefighting response and is still waiting for word of how much they will receive from the province.

When told the province intended to be fully staffed by April 15, Guyon said his preference is for an earlier date as it will allow crews to attack early-season fires before they get out of hand.

As for the costs, Guyon thinks fighting wildfires in the white zones has become too big of a burden for municipalities to handle on their own.

"We're the little dogs in this big fight and we're more used to dealing with fires in regards to structures," Guyon said.

"It's a different magnitude. If you've seen some of these fires, you just you look at them and wonder, 'how do you even start to deal with that?'"

The issue of firefighting costs outside the forest protection areas was the subject of a resolution from Parkland County adopted by the Rural Municipalities of Alberta in November.

The county west of Edmonton fought large wildfires last spring with its own firefighters.

The resolution asks the province to create a new long-term strategy for handling fires outside the forest protection areas. That includes having more resources ready for the official start of fire season on March 1.

Yellowhead Country, further west, sent Loewen a letter chastising the province for a lack of readiness and a slow response last year.

Parkland County spent $13 million on wildland firefighting in 2023. The county is still waiting for the province to reimburse some of those costs.

Communications manager Simon Yackulic said the county hopes the province recognizes the urgent need to be prepared for the 2024 season. Parkland County also wants provincial money in place to help municipalities pay for firefighting.

Loewen said he has talked to Yellowhead and Mackenzie Counties so far. He said he is happy to talk to any county which wishes to meet with him.

"We do need to increase our co-operation and our integration with municipalities," he said.