“We’re in that period between when the snow has melted, but the green-up of vegetation hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a very critical time for wildfires”

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Provincial officials are watching closely as Alberta enters the most critical period in the annual wildfire season.

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Wildfire season technically began two months ago, and it will run until the end of October. So far, Alberta Wildfire provincial information officer Josée St-Onge said Friday it’s been a typical start, with 152 wildfires so far as of Saturday — in line with the five-year average.

But May is typically the busiest month for fighting fires, and St-Onge said Albertans need to be cautious over the coming weeks.

“We’re in that period between when the snow has melted, but the green-up of vegetation hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a very critical time for wildfires,” she said. “Dry grass and dry vegetation is extremely flammable.”

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It’s still too soon to say what might be in store for the coming six months of wildfire risk. St-Onge said there’s been average snowfall through most of the province’s boreal forests, which leaves the ground less dry — one element in the level of wildfire risk. But officials are still waiting to see how much rain falls in the coming weeks, and that will be a deciding factor in how the season evolves.

Two-thirds of the wildfires that burned in Alberta last year were human-caused, and St-Onge said people need to be aware of how to prevent fires.

“Before you leave a campfire, make sure it’s completely out. We always tell people to soak it, stir it and soak it again,” she said.

“When it comes to off-highway vehicles, we ask people to be aware of their surroundings and to stop often to clear the hotspots around the exhaust so that dry grass doesn’t accumulate in there and catch on fire.”

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Alberta Wildfire also runs an online dashboard where you can check the status of active wildfires.

Minister says firefighter hiring is proceeding normally

As wildfire season ramps up, the union that represents permanent and seasonal firefighters is questioning whether the province is ready.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) vice-president Mike Dempsey said in a statement this week that the hiring process for seasonal firefighters is moving too slowly, and training has also been delayed. He said he’s concerned that it could be the end of May before the province catches up.

“Our firefighters fear that the lack of experienced boots on the ground will lead to fires getting out of control, threatening lives and communities,” Dempsey said.

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Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development Minister Nate Horner told reporters Wednesday that the wildfire budget is stable and the department is hiring as normal.

“There is some hiring difficulty that we’re also seeing across the board with our neighboring provinces,” he said.

“There’s positions that are unfilled, but that’ll change as we move into the season. This is pretty similar to the previous year.”

Alberta NDP Opposition critic Heather Sweet said Wednesday she’s concerned by reports that the province has cut the seasonal contracts down by a month — ending in August instead of September.

“We don’t have boots on the ground like we should already and we know wildfire season is happening,” she said.

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Twitter: @meksmith

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