Originally published in the Whitecourt Star
Whitecourt and area residents will have to be extra careful with their campfires earlier on this year.
Wildfire season in Alberta is starting a month earlier than usual — on March 1 rather than April 1.
“That gives the opportunity for our crews to get their equipment ready and do recruitment when they need to and hit the ground running when they have to,” said Oneil Carlier, Alberta’s minister of agriculture and forestry and the MLA for Whitecourt-St. Anne.
He said moving the start of wildfire season earlier has been on the province’s radar since the 2011 Slave Lake wildfires, but the NDP government is now putting it into law.
“It’s becoming increasingly important. The fact is that close to 70 per cent of the wildfires now are caused by humans, so all of us as Albertans can do better … and we should,” said Carlier.
Shannon Stambaugh, information officer for the Whitecourt Wildfire Management Area, said the issuing of permits for planned fires is a key component of the town’s strategy for combating wildfires.
“By allowing us to know where those fires are going to happen, we then know how to strategically look for fires,” she said.
The permits also come with a list of safety standards the town recommends for safe burning practices, said Stambaugh.
“It gives general guidelines for how individuals can burn safely and practically,” she said. For example, the town forbids burning when winds are 15 km/h or more.
“We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can control what humans do,” Stambaugh said.
Carlier said the natural fires can be alleviated using the latest technology.
The wildfires that aren’t attributable to human activity “are almost 100 per cent lightning strikes,” he said.
“There’s some really interesting technology out there where the department can track lightning storms and actually track the strikes. Even though we’ve had some bad fire seasons in the past few years, the vast majority of fires are tracked almost instantly and are put out within 24 hours,” said Carlier.
He said another way for governments to reduce forest fires is to increase corporate fines to a maximum of $1 million from $5,000, which has already been done in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Carlier stressed that the government wants to encourage people to enjoy the wilderness, but to do so in a smart, safe manner.
“Please go out and enjoy our wildlands, our forests and our prairies. We live in a beautiful province. But if you do so, please act responsibly. Make sure your campfire is out. Make sure you’re not that person that causes a wildfire,” he said.
Whitecourt and area residents can call 780-778-7272 to order their free fire permit at least a week before they want to use it.