Alberta still has dozens of wildfires this winter. Here’s why.

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A helicopter hovering above the ground flies over part of the snow-covered terrain near Fox Lake, east of High Level, Alberta.

On the ground, around 20 provincial firefighters, fully dressed in bunker gear, are exploring the area to map wildfire hotspots and dig up fires on the ground.

“Our firefighters are always monitoring fires in the winter, so we take flights and check on some of our lingering fires,” said Victoria Ostendorf, wildfire information officer for the High Level Forest region.

“But it’s not as common to see as many persistent fires as this winter.”

Alberta’s wildfires are responding to a growing number of winter wildfires in the region due to drought-like weather conditions this season. Approximately 16 fires have occurred since the 2023 season in the High Level area alone.

Persistent wildfires refer to fires that started in previous seasons and smolder underground for months before reigniting in the spring once the snow has melted.

Although spreading fires are common and the organization has conducted winter wildfire operations before, Ostendorf said it has never reached this scale.

“A lot of this area is on fire,” she said.

The High Level Forest Area experienced approximately 175 wildfires last year, burning approximately 800,000 hectares of land. Many fires have affected communities like Fox Lake, where 2,543 people live, according to the provincial government’s regional dashboard.

A group of firefighters wearing bunker gear and helmets gather around a cloud of gray smoke.
Provincial firefighters dressed in bunker uniforms monitor the Fox Lake area near High Level, Alta., to map wildfire hotspots and dig up spreading ground fires. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Once teams map the area where hot spots appear, Ostendorf said they develop a plan to identify which ones are of concern and use tools to expose the earth and extract that heat.

Alberta Wildfire’s main priority is to work in areas close to communities to mitigate fire risk to residents, but also to work in remote areas where trees are more likely to catch fire or burn more strong.

“This area is adjacent to the community, (so) it’s really important for us to take care of this area by exposing the heat from the ground or reducing the hazards to the community, as well as the impacts of the smoke,” a- she declared.

The province’s 2023 wildfire season, which burned a record 2.2 million hectares across Alberta, ended in near-drought conditions. Alberta Wildfire is hiring more firefighters and hopes to have a full complement by April 15, earlier than usual.

According to provincial information officer Melissa Story, 57 wildfires were burning in Alberta as of Tuesday. There have been 12 new wildfires since the start of 2024, as well as more than 60 that have occurred since last year.

“Our five-year average is about six years, so we’re at about 10 times what we usually see,” Story said.

A look at how Alberta wildfires are responding to increased winter wildfires

Alberta’s wildfires are responding to a growing number of winter wildfires due to warmer, drier weather this season. CBC’s Trevor Wilson flew with crews near Fox Lake, east of High Level, to witness winter wildfire fighting in action.

Once the snow melts and exposes dead, dry grass on the landscape, Story said wildfires could start easily and spread quickly. Alberta Wildfire hopes to build on some of its successes from last year, including extended firefighting in the spring and fall.

“Wildfire season legally begins March 1; however, we have the option… to start things earlier if we need to,” she said.

Ostendorf said this summer is expected to be hotter and drier, but it’s too early to say how the 2024 fire season will play out. Officials still need to know how much rain will fall in the region this spring.

That’s one reason why winter operations, along with tree pruning, are important, she said.

“The fire can go deep into the ground, especially in this area…but it can also spread and re-emerge as a wildfire,” Ostendorf said.

“So this job is about anticipating that and preventing that from happening.”

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