Alberta warns of critical time for wildfire risk as evacuations start

Wildfire evacuations in Yellowknife

By Nia Williams

(Reuters) - Alberta introduced more fire restrictions on Wednesday, as officials said the 2024 wildfire season had started earlier than usual due to ongoing drought and warned that the western Canadian province was entering a critical phase for fire risk.

Around 30 people were forced to leave their homes in the Peace River region in the north of the province due to a fast-spreading wildfire on Tuesday, and local media reported inmates from the Peace River Correctional Facility were also evacuated.

Earlier in the week, around 20 people were told to evacuate the Cold Lake First Nation due to a separate fire, although that order has since lifted.

The evacuation orders mark what is expected to be another severe year for wildfires in western Canada, which is dealing with widespread drought and warmer-than-normal spring temperatures.

There have been 205 wildfires in Alberta so far this year burning about 755 hectares, Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josee St-Onge told a news conference, well above the five-year average of 120 wildfires and 230 hectares burned.

"This is a critical time for wildfire in Alberta, snow has melted and exposed dead and dry vegetation which is extremely flammable," St-Onge said. "Until vegetation green-up happens wildfires will easily ignite and spread very quickly."

In 2023, Canada endured its worst-ever year for wildfires, with more than 6,600 blazes burning 15 million hectares, an area roughly seven times the annual average. Eight firefighters died and 230,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Alberta forestry minister Todd Loewen said 200 wildfires have already been fully extinguished this year.

"While the elevated number of new wildfire starts in 2024 points to concerning levels of wildfire danger, it also means our response tactics are working," Loewen said.

"We will be introducing fire bans today," he added, referring to restrictions governing when people can light campfires and bonfires.

Loewen said Alberta is training additional wildfire fighters and that hiring numbers were about 39% higher than last year.

(Reporting by Nia Williams in British Columbia; Editing by Alistair Bell)