Fire season started in a deep freeze: but don’t be fooled

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Don’t let the early March deep freeze fool you. All it takes for the fire hazard to shoot up is a few warm days.

When that happens, as the Forest Protection folks are fond of reminding us, dead, dry grass is exposed and can ignite at the drop of a spark. That spark might come from an improperly cleaned ATV exhaust pipe, a carelessly flung cigarette, off the wheel of a passing truck, a campfire or a ‘holdover’ from winter burning.

Those things happen every spring – some or all of them – which is why a few years ago the province shifted the official start of fire season from April 1 to the first day of March. That’s when burning permits become mandatory, and the staff needed to issue and monitor them comes on.

“Some patrolmen started this week,” Slave Lake Forest Area Wildfire Operations Officer Kevin Parkinson told The Leader last week.

Other personnel will be trickling in over the next month. On April 4 a flood of other seasonal people arrive, including the first of the lookout tower operators. Typically the towers that are in settled areas get manned first, since that’s where early spring burning is likely to happen.

Predicting spring (or any) weather is “a chess game,” says Wildfire Information Officer Leah Lovequist. And the coldness of the winter is no indication of what spring is going to be like. Neither is the amount of snow. As noted before, the winter of 2011 was a heavy one for snow. People were predicting flooding in the spring, but what happened was mid-May wildfires. The flooding came later and had nothing to do with snow run-off.

One thing that’s new in the wildfire preparedness scene in the Slave Lake area, Parkinson says, is a series of remote weather stations. There are 17 of them in operation in the district – delivering data quicker than the head office would get it otherwise. It could help the planners to make decisions on where to allocate firefighting resources.

Not brand new, but entering its second year of trials is the system of lowering firefighters from hovering helicopters. It worked well last year, Parkinson said.

“We can drop them in small hot spots without having to cut a heli-pad,” he says.

The program is called HEC, standing for ‘Human External Cargo.’

Last year was a relatively slow one for the Slave Lake Area, as they go. There were 166 fires recorded, and 6,872 hectares burned. Over 6,000 of those were one fire – north of Chipewyan Lake. Both those numbers are well below average for the region. The relative calmness allowed Alberta to export crews to other provinces (and the U.S.) where the need was greater. Nine crews spent 166 days last season fighting fires outside Alberta’s borders. Another 17 individuals put in a total of 340 days doing the same thing.

The Slave Lake Forest Area is big – 5.8 million hectares is the figure Parkinson provides. (That’s just shy of twice the size of Belgium, if our arithmetic is correct.)

“Lots of forest, lots of communities, lots of infrastructure on the landscape,” he says.

Sometimes decisions have to be and are made to let fires burn. This is typically when resources are stretched thin and a fire isn’t threatening any community or industrial infrastructure or valuable timber.

But the focus early in the season is mainly on areas nearest to settlements, because that’s where spring fires tend to show up. If you see fire, 310-FIRE is the number to call.

“We have 24/7 duty officers,” says Lovequist.

For purposes of comparison, the 10-year average for fires in the Slave Lake area is 191 and hectares burned 20,400. Of the 166 fires last year, 71 were human-caused.

Kevin Parkinson, Wildfire Operations Officer for Slave Lake Forest Area.
The Rabbit Lake Fire – the biggest by far of the 166 fires in 2019 in the Slave Lake Forest Area.
Firefighters practice a new method of getting out of a helicopter and onto a fire.
Photos courtesy Alberta Ag & Forestry
Winter burning; permits for it are required as of March 1. The usual cautions apply.

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