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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As wildfires burn across 1 million acres in Canada, thousands face uncertainty


The Canadian province of Alberta declared a state of emergency on Saturday as more than 110 wildfires burned across it, but weather conditions were improving for firefighting efforts.

By Ian Austen, Amber Bracken and Vjosa Isai


Judy Greenwood did not want to leave. But when the evacuation alerts on her phone blared repeatedly and emergency officials knocked on her door, she and her husband loaded their four cats into the car and drove away from their rural hamlet to escape approaching wildfires.


In much of the western province of Alberta, this time of year has long been wildfire season. But this year, a large volume of fires in the boreal forest have come early and have been exceptionally extensive, leading the province to declare a state of emergency.


As of Tuesday morning, about 30,000 people had fled their homes in the sparsely populated, largely northern areas of the province as 89 active wildfires were burning across nearly 1 million acres.


There have already been 409 fires this season — which typically runs from March 1 to Oct. 31 — an unusually high number. And for residents of vulnerable areas, that has evoked uneasy memories of 2016, when raging flames moved from the forest into the oil sands capital of Fort McMurray, Alberta.


That conflagration forced the evacuation of more than 90,000 people, destroyed more than 2,400 homes and businesses, and disrupted production at the United States’ largest source of imported oil. At more than 4 billion Canadian dollars, it remains Canada’s most costly disaster.


As was the case during the Fort McMurray fires, many of the current evacuees, a group that includes thousands of members of First Nations communities, have sought refuge in Edmonton, the province’s capital and second-largest city.


Uncertainty plagues many evacuees. Thick smoke hanging over many areas has made it impossible to determine through aerial surveys the fate of many houses and other buildings.


“No question that this is a challenging time,” Danielle Smith, the premier of Alberta, told reporters Monday afternoon. “Tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and their jobs. They’re leaving behind all they own, wondering if they will lose everything that they’ve worked for.”


Cloudy skies and mostly rain have eased the pressure on firefighters and have allowed some people to return to their homes. Damage so far has been limited to a few dozen homes, some infrastructure and roads. No deaths or injuries have been reported.


The effects of the fires on the oil industry have been minimal, although some producers have been forced to halt a small percentage of production.


Greenwood, who left her rural hamlet, was told that sprinklers placed along a road by firefighters had successfully kept the flames away from her house in Wildwood.


“I want to hug them and say thank you,” she said from Edmonton, where she was staying with her son and other relatives. “They saved our house.”


It remained unclear to Greenwood on Tuesday when she, her husband and their pets would be allowed to return home.


At the evacuation center in Edmonton, Trevor Sundman, an oil worker, said that when he had left his community of Drayton Valley, “there wasn’t any smoke or anything.” But, he added, “I’ve seen videos of what it looks like now, and it just looks all burned.”


Families that have been displaced for longer than seven consecutive days are eligible for government-provided financial support, with other services, such as food and other supplies, distributed through evacuation centers.


Many of the evacuees were not just concerned about the safety of their families but also the welfare of the cattle, horses, bison and other animals on their farms.


Well outside the fire zone in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, Ivy McCallum, 24, is looking after three horses that had been evacuated.


“I have the resources to help people: I’ve got the land. I’ve got the trailer. I’ve got the truck,” McCallum said.


Wildfires have been increasing in size and intensity in western Canada, with the seasons generally growing longer. Research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.


Across the mountains, in the neighboring province of British Columbia, fires consumed the entire community of Lytton in 2021 after temperatures reached a record 49.6 degrees Celsius, or 121.3 Fahrenheit.


The fires in Alberta come as the province prepares for elections May 29. Under normal circumstances, Smith, who has been critical of many climate measures introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, would be prohibited by provincial election rules from making major decisions during the period before the vote. The emergency, however, has changed that and has led Smith to ask for federal assistance.


As a result, members of the Canadian military are on standby and would be deployed by the federal government if needed, Smith said. Troops typically help with evacuations and infrastructure repairs needed because of disasters. The federal government has also offered to provide other forms of support, and several provinces have sent fire crews to Alberta.


Mike Ellis, Alberta’s public safety minister, told reporters that there were limits to what any government or agency could do to extinguish the fires. In past years, a change in weather has ultimately been the only force that has brought blazes under control.


“I let everybody know that because there is no silver-bullet solution in our response,” he said.

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