Controlled burns start in Fort McMurray to fight wildfires with fire

This year’s priority areas for controlled burns are Thickwood, Wood Buffalo and the north access of Parsons Creek.

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Regional Emergency Services (RES) are using controlled burns to fight fire with fire as this year’s wildfire season starts.

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Since April 9, these burns have turned dead, dry vegetation into ash. Without these burns, this vegetation could fuel wildfires that spark in the region. This year’s priority areas for controlled burns are Thickwood, Wood Buffalo and the north access of Parsons Creek.

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The window for controlled burns is narrow. If there is time and resources available, municipal spokesperson Greg Bennett says controlled burns could be done in other areas, such as the Morgan Heights neighbourhood in Timberlea.

Controlled burns are still subject to provincial fire bans. Last year’s controlled burn season was cut short because of the dry weather that came with the 2023 wildfire season.

“How long we continue the program will depend on a few factors, including weather, but we are assessing if we can keep the burn abatement teams working for far longer than last year,” said Bennett.

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A wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire watches a controlled burn incinerate dead, dry vegetation by Highway 63 near the Thickwood overpass on April 11, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

RMWB preparing for wildfire season

The municipality and the Alberta government have spent months preparing for this year’s wildfire season, which started 10 days early on Feb. 20. Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz is urging people to be calm and prepared after last year’s wildfire season was marked by the evacuation of Fort Chipewyan and dozens of smoky days.

“We’re ready for a dry wildfire season. Our resources are fresh, our relationships with forestry and the provincial government are good, and we’re not sitting on our laurels. We’ve been very proactive,” said Butz in a February interview. “We live in the Boreal Forest and the Boreal Forest is dependent on fire for its survival. We’ve gotta be ready when that event happens.”

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The 2023 wildfire season burned 22,000 square kilometres in Alberta, or about 10 times the five-year average. About 38,000 people from 48 communities were part of evacuations

Wildfires burned more than 3,643 square kilometres of land in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, mostly around the Fort Chipewyan area. Some trapper cabins were destroyed, but firefighters kept the flames from the community. Wildfire smoke also made Fort McMurray’s air quality last summer worse than any other city in Canada or the U.S.

Roughly 1,000 people were able to safely leave Fort Chipewyan when wildfires threatened the community in MayMore than 350 people from Fort Smith, NWT and Fort Fitzgerald were flown to Fort McMurray in August and stayed in the city for more than a month.

Firefighting, evacuations and the logistics of the 2023 wildfire season cost the municipality more than $4.1 million. Butz says he cannot predict what the weather will look like this summer or spring, or how much rain will fall on the region. However, people should be ready for dry weather.

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