Troops fan out across Alberta as province prepares for challenging battle against wildfires

Members of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry arrive aboard a CC-130J Hercules in Grande Prairie, Alberta, on May 5, 2023.                   (Cass Moon/Canadian Armed Forces - image credit)
Members of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry arrive aboard a CC-130J Hercules in Grande Prairie, Alberta, on May 5, 2023. (Cass Moon/Canadian Armed Forces - image credit)

Troops are fanning out across Alberta as firefighters prepare for another skirmish with wildfires burning in the province.

About 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces have been dispatched to aid in the battle, as the return of hot dry weather and high winds is expected to make the fight more difficult in the days ahead.

As of Saturday afternoon, 86 wildfires were burning across Alberta's forested protected areas, including 24 burning out of control. That does not include the seven wildfires burning outside those zones.

The crisis has triggered a provincial state of emergency, stretched firefighting resources to their limit, and left thousands of evacuees waiting anxiously for the all-clear to return home.

Soldiers from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and 1 Combat Engineer Regiment are now working alongside roughly 2,000 firefighters battling fires across the province. Army reserve soldiers from across Alberta also deployed this week.

'Extremely volatile'

After a few days of relative calm, the return of hot, dry weather this weekend threatens to make conditions more volatile.

As of Saturday afternoon, an estimated 16,520 people remain under evacuation across the province and officials were bracing for the possibility that more evacuation orders will be issued this weekend.

All Albertans need to be prepared, Bre Hutchinson, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told a news conference Saturday afternoon.

The province is doing all it can to get firefighting resources where they're needed most but the situation is unpredictable, Hutchinson said.

"We remain in an extremely volatile situation, and the risk of new wildfires remains significant in much of the province," she said.

"For those who are in a community that's on an evacuation alert, please continue to be prepared, in case you are asked to evacuate, as things can change quickly.

"I want to reinforce the importance of being prepared."

Moments afer Hutchinson spoke, the latest round of evacuation orders were issued, this time for parts of Leduc County, southwest of Edmonton. A wildfire burning three kilometres west of the Town of Devon is spreading north toward the North Saskatchewan River and putting some properties at risk.

A few hours later, an alert for Big Lakes County residents south of Township Road 740, west of Range Road 152, east of Range Road 162 and north of Township Road 730 was issued. A fire southeast of the Town of High Prairie is moving northeast. Affected residents must evacuate immediately according to the alert.

Later that evening, the community of Chateh was evacuated as well. A wildfire west of Chateh is pushing northeast toward the community, according to the evacuation alert. Chateh residents should evacuate immediately to the Bushe River administrative office in High Level, the alert said.

Around 7:30 p.m. MT, Big Lakes County residents south of Township Road 740, west of Range Road 152, east of Range Road 162 and north of Township Road 730 were ordered to evacuate their community. Gift Lake and Peavine Metis Settlement are not under evacuation order, according to the alert. East Prairie Metis Settlement remains on evacuation order.

Josee St-Onge, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said heat and low humidity has triggered extreme fire behaviour that threatens to escalate.

"While we have seen cooler temperatures and some rain in previous days, it is not enough to make a significant difference on most these large wildfires," she said at Saturday's news conference. "Fire activity will pick up today."

To date this year, Alberta has responded to 443 wildfires that have burned nearly 470,000 hectares.

Troops on the ground

On Saturday, military officials from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry provided an update from their newly-established camp of operations in Grande Prairie, about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Speaking from a field dotted with green tents and transport vehicles, Lt.-Col. Ben Schmidt, commander of the Land Task Force, said troops are now on the move.

"We have deployed about 300 soldiers so far as part of the ground land task force, in direct support to firefighter efforts, specifically looking at going out into the field and supporting the professionals," he said.

Schmidt, who is responsible for all the soldiers deployed in the province, said the military will also be providing support from the skies through air force deployments. If needed, officers will also aid evacuation efforts, he said.

Bases of operation are being established across northern Alberta and about 100 soldiers will be deployed to each location.

About 100 soldiers are now in the Grande Prairie area, Schmidt said.

An additional 200 soldiers are currently stationed at Drayton Valley. Half of them will be moving to Fox Creek, about 200 kilometres north, in a few days, he said.

Soldiers will remain in the province for at least another week but the deployment could be extended if the situation calls for it, Schmidt said.

Soldiers are currently working southwest of Grande Prairie where a wildfire, covering 1,581 hectares, continues to burn out of control.

Maj. Matt Prowse, Commander A Company, 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, said three platoons are working with firefighters to protect the southern edge of the city from possible flare-ups when the temperature rises in the coming days.

"Our key tasks right now are conducting mop-up and and debris clearance, and hotspot dousing ...preventing potential damage and loss of homes in particular," he said.

"The teams are working quite well … and overall, the sense of purpose is high."

Despite the promise of additional aid, some communities under threat continue to call for more help from the province.

Brian Cornforth, fire chief of Parkland County, west of Edmonton, said additional firefighters are desperately needed in the community.

The county has pulled in firefighters from nearby departments and hired a crew from B.C. on private contract but it's not enough. Crews are exhausted, stretched thin, and working in increasingly dangerous conditions, he says.

Peat in the soil is working as an unwelcome fuel for the flames and there are increasing concerns about the risk of falling trees and sudden flare-ups, he said.

If help doesn't arrive soon, he fears the fire burning near the hamlet of Entwistle will only grow more powerful.

"This fire will get deeper seated," he said. "There's potential that it could outgrow our boundaries if we can't fortify those perimeters, so we need those resources and soon."

For many people living in communities ravaged by fire, evacuation orders have extended for days into weeks.

Marie Svejda, 74, has lost track of how many days she has been living in a tent on an empty lot with her mini dachshund, Peanut.

She was awoken at midnight in early May at home in Drayton Valley and told she had 30 minutes to leave.

She said she does not understand why it is taking so long to get the fires under control.

"What the heck are they doing there? Are they having a party?"

Now she is preparing to decamp to a hotel.

"If I stay here any longer I won't remember my own name. It really, really sucks," she said.   "When I come back, I tell you, I will kiss the ground."

Heat, dry lightning, smoke

Much of northern Alberta is now under an extreme heat warning. Temperatures across the province are expected to reach daytime highs near 30 C over the coming days — and there is little relief in sight.

Rob Griffith, an Environment Canada metrologist based in Edmonton, said an upper ridge building in the atmosphere over western Canada will leave the province in a heat wave for days.

The province can expect record breaking temperatures, particularly in the north, he said.

Temperatures are expected to ease up by midway through next week, but that weather front will come with its own hazards, Griffith said.

"The temperatures will go down for a couple of days," he said. "Unfortunately, there is the possibility of some active weather in the form of thunderstorms so that could be a bad thing for the fire situation."

The cooling temperatures are expected to trigger dry thunderstorms. Most of the rain produced will evaporate before ever reaching the ground and the storms could trigger dry lightning strikes that could spark new fires, Griffith cautions.

There is no significant precipitation in the forecast and any reprieve from the scorching heat is expected to be short lived, he said.

An upper ridge of high pressure creating a heat wave over Alberta will only dissipate temporarily, meaning a return to high temperatures by the end of next week, he said.

Meanwhile, a thick haze of smoke from the wildfires will continue to spread, polluting the skies over Alberta and blowing eastward beyond provincial bounds.

Wildfire ecologist Robert Gray said current weather conditions could be a troubling start to wildfire season if they persist.

"If this pattern holds, then it's going to be a very long, difficult fire season," said Gray, who has studied the science behind wildfires across the country.

"It's not unusual to have fires in May in the boreal forest. But this year the fires are of a magnitude and intensity that's quite different from the norm."

Gray advises policymakers to quickly adapt to the current situation, which has been spurred by climate change. He said the approach should include more prescribed burning and improved land stewardship strategies developed with Indigenous communities.

Recovery efforts

Conroy Sewepagaham, chief of the Little Red River Cree Nation, said the weather in the days ahead will be a challenge for firefighters battling a fire that ravaged Fox Lake.

The community of 3,600 people located 150 kilometres east of High Level remains an evacuation zone.

Residents began clearing out last Wednesday as the Paskwa wildfire grew rapidly, eventually overwhelming the town and consuming homes and businesses. The band has confirmed at least 108 structures were destroyed.

The fire, now covering 16,400 hectares, continues to burn out of control. Favourable winds, however, have provided some relief.

The fire is "slowly creeping" up toward Wood Buffalo National Park, Sewepagaham said in a video update Friday evening.

"The continued good news is that the fire is moving away from the community," he said "The not-so good news is the weather and the coming forecast.

"The wind gusts are not helping with the firefighting efforts but the incident commander and boots on the ground are telling us that they're doing their darndest to try and hold the line."

The fear now is that the flames could jump the Peace River and threaten the remote northern community of Garden River, home to about 700 people, Sewepagaham said.

He said the community's nightwatchmen will continue to monitor the fire each night and sound the alarm if the flames take a dangerous turn.