As sweltering heat in the forecast threatens to accelerate the spread of wildfires burning across Alberta, troops are joining the battle to tame the flames.
The soldiers are being deployed as communities across the province brace for the danger to escalate. After a few days of relative calm, the return of hot, dry weather this weekend threatens to make conditions more volatile.
As of Thursday morning, 80 wildfires continue to burn in forest protection areas, 23 of them out of control. Seven other fires are burning outside those areas.
Soon, Canadian Armed Forces soldiers will be on the move across the province — by road and air — to assist firefighters on the front lines.
Troops from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and 1 Combat Engineer Regiment are setting up bases of operations in Grande Prairie, Fox Creek and Drayton Valley, the provincial government said Thursday.
Army reserve soldiers from across Alberta are also deploying this week.
Troops will support firefighting efforts, aid with community evacuations and lend engineering support through the use of heavy equipment, Premier Danielle Smith told a news conference Thursday.
“Because the risk remains elevated, particularly in a few key communities … the Canadian Armed Forces have begun to move out support Alberta while we’re fighting these unprecedented fires,” Smith said.
Emergency officials will deliver an update on Alberta’s wildfire response at 3 p.m. MT. Watch the news conference here.
Alberta declared a state of emergency on Saturday as fast-moving wildfires ignited across the province and evacuation orders spread.
To date this year, 421 wildfires in Alberta have burned 410,000 hectares — about double the average area burned in an entire season.
Hoping for the weather to hold
Indigenous communities have been among the hardest hit, and nine First Nations in Alberta remain under threat.
In Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, 45 structures, including homes and the community’s elder centre, have been destroyed. Around 1,600 people from the community have been evacuated to nearby Grande Prairie and Valleyview, and also to Edmonton.
At least 14 homes were lost in the East Prairie Métis Settlement, around 165 kilometres east of Grande Prairie, when a fire ripped through the community last week, forcing 300 people to flee.
The Paskwa fire at Fox Lake, 150 kilometres east of High Level, is among the fires currently defying suppression efforts.
Since it was detected on May 2, the fire has burned more than 24,000 hectares, consuming more than 100 structures in the remote northern community of Fox Lake.
But some relief for the remote northern community, one of nine First Nations communities in Alberta under threat. On Wednesday, amid favourable winds, the flames began to retreat.
Conroy Sewepagaham, chief of the Little Red River Cree Nation, said he remains hopeful that if the weather holds, his community will be spared further damage.
“The fire is no longer a big threat to the community,” Sewepagaham said in a video posted to Facebook. “That’s one good thing.”
Firefighters are working to douse hot spots but the forecast is not encouraging, Sewepagaham said.
“The next coming days for our local climate, temperature-wise, is not going to be really good for us on the ground, so we might see some growth on that fire that is moving away from the community.”
Little Red River Cree Nation is made up of three communities — Fox Lake, Garden River and John D’Or Prairie. Indigenous Services Canada is helping set up temporary housing in John D’Or Prairie for 500 people, including a commercial kitchen and other amenities.
Sewepagaham said fire breaks are being established, and night watchmen have been stationed throughout the valley of the Peace River to sound the alarm if flames take a dangerous turn.
He said it’s unclear when residents can safely return home.
Across Alberta, around 18,000 people remain displaced. And while thousands wait for the threat to pass, some residents are being allowed to return home.
In Yellowhead County, west of Edmonton, evacuation orders were lifted on Thursday morning for the communities of Wildwood, Hansonville and Lobstick Resort.
County Mayor Wade Williams said he supports the re-entry plan but with firefighting resources stretched thin, he’s concerned about the possibility of another evacuation.
One fire is burning less than two kilometres from Wildwood, Williams said.
“If people choose to stay and things go sideways, we may not be able to get back in there to protect them,” Williams told evacuees during a town hall Wednesday.
The fire near Wildwood, still out of control, now covers an estimated 7,254 hectares. Another fire nearby is burning on both sides of Highway 22, north of Highway 16. It has now destroyed 2,400 hectares and continues to burn out of control.
“We need to live with the fires, they’re here, we don’t want to keep you away,” Luc Mercier, chief administration officer for Yellowhead County, said Wednesday.
“We are balancing your right to your property, to the extent that we can, with our responsibility as a municipality in a state of local emergency to protect your safety.”