2019 fire season not over yet: less fires burn more hectares than average

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

With over a month of fire season still to come, it’s anyone’s guess how it will go.

As of September 17, this year had less fires than the five year average, but over 20 times the average hectares burnt.

From 2014-2018, the average number of fires was 196, with 11,000 hectares burnt. However, 2019 had 165 fires and 274,150 hectares burnt.

The McMillan Complex (fire 049) is the biggest fire in the history of the Lesser Slave Forest Area. It started on May 18, by the time it was held on July 1 it covered 273,045.

All other fires measured around 1,100 ha.

“Every season’s different,” says Leah Lovequist, Wildfire Information officer for the Slave Lake Forest Area. There’s no way of predicting how the fall part of fire season will turn out, she continues.

That being said, at the moment the fire danger is low to moderate across the province and the last fires in the Slave Lake Forest Area were in August.

With the fire danger low, the ‘duck’ crew of four skimmer aircraft who are normally in Slave Lake were loaned to Alaska in late August and early September.

In the boreal forest, the majority of fires are started in the spring, but fires also can start in the fall, Lovequist says. Frost kills the grass. Dead grass is dry, flammable and a fire will start easily. As this happens, the fire danger will rise once again. The weather might cooperate and keep the fire danger low or it might not.

All the rain this year means there is a lot of tall grass in the forest and meadows, which means lots of fuel once it is dry, says Lovequist.

Fire season in Alberta is from March 1 to October 31.

Alberta Wildfire monitors the weather and fire danger daily.

In 2019, the first forest fire in the Lesser Slave Forest Area started on March 22.

Until the end of May, all fires were caused by humans or are still under investigation. So far this year, Lesser Slave Forest Area had 75 lightning fires, 69 human, and 21 under investigation.

There were 18 fires in April, 61 in May, 49 in June, 31 in July and 4 in August. The total size of the August fires doesn’t equal a hectare.

The majority of the later fires were small, and put out quickly, Lovequist says.

The fire season kicked into high gear north of here first. In May and early June, Slave Lake hosted evacuees from High Level for two weeks. These people were escaping the Chuckegg Creek fire.

Chuckegg Creek (350,134 ha.) is the fourth largest wildfire which started in Alberta, says Victoria Ostendorf, Wildfire Informations Officer for the High Level Forest Area.

The largest was Richardson Fire in 2011 (577,469 ha.), Ostendorf says. It was followed by Horse River, the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 (491,430 ha.), and Keane in 1982 (409,463).

In 1950, a fire started in BC, Chinchaga burned into Alberta and covered 988,487 ha., Ostendorf says, but this didn’t start in Alberta.

Fire 049 started before the High Level evacuees came, but while they were in Slave Lake it grew from a small fire into massive fire.

In June, 049 caused evacuations of Wabasca and surrounding communities, plus Trout Lake and Peerless Lake.

Of those under investigation, three are of note. The Devonshire road fire (#62) on May 21 at 7 p.m. was two kilometres from Slave Lake. It was put out very quickly.

The first Widewater fire on May 31 is under investigation. This fire which was reported at 1:30 a.m. included the discovery of a body.

A June 2, police report identified the body as Darren Dawson, 30. An autopsy on June 4 ruled it a homicide. As of September 16, RCMP major crimes are still investigating Dawson’s murder and the fire.

A second fire close to this site was started by lightening on June 17. This fire caused a brief evacuation of Canyon Creek, Widewater and Wagner.

Fire 049 is also under investigation.

With less lightening in spring and fall, most of the forest fires will be human made. These can be prevented.

Alberta Wildfire reminds people to put out campfires, clean OHV mufflers often and carry firefighting equipment when in the bush.

Mud caked on mufflers can heat up, fall off, smoulder and light a fire.

Fire permits are required to do any burning other than camp fires until October 31. Fire permits for the weekend must be filed mid-week, so a forestry worker can assess the site. By having permits, Ag and Forestry can track the fires that are supposed to be there, without wasting resources investigating controlled fires.

Fire permits are available for Slave Lake area by calling 780-849-7377. High Prairie 780-523-6619, Wabasca 780-891-3860.

Fire permits are required for anything other than a campfire including: burn barrels, fire works, piles of sticks and leaves, and burning grass.

Later in the fall, FireSmart will be burning grass near communities to keep the fire danger down.

Alberta Wildfire worker assessing a burn pile for a fire permit. Courtesy of Alberta Wildfire.
Map of all fires in Slave Lake Forest Area from March 1 to September 9, all of which are extinguished or under control. Courtesy of Alberta Wildfire.

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