Thunderstorms Bring Hope of Rain, but Also Lightning, for Alberta’s Wildfires

June 1, 2019 Updated: June 1, 2019

Crews battling Alberta wildfires that have forced thousands of people from their homes and put others on evacuation notice faced another challenge Saturday—thunderstorms.

While such storms bring the promise of rain, they also produce lightning, which can spark new fires and strong winds to fan the flames.

Wildfire information officer Leah Lovequist says a lightning strike on Saturday afternoon hit a tree south of a lookout tower not far from Swan Hills in the Slave Lake Forest Area, causing a small fire that crews were dealing with.

Slave Lake has been on evacuation notice for several days due to a large fire 33 kilometres to the northeast, and residents have been told to be ready to leave with only eight hours notice.

Environment Canada issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the town on Saturday, saying conditions were favourable for the development of dangerous thunderstorms that may be capable of producing strong wind gusts, damaging hail and heavy rain.

The forecast also called for possible thunderstorms in High Level, where residents have been out of their homes for over a week due to a wildfire that’s still out of control and is 280,000 hectares in size.

A fire burns near High Level, AB. on May 21, 2019 in this handout photo from the Alberta Government. (HO, Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta/The Canadian Press)
A fire burns near High Level, AB. on May 21, 2019 in this handout photo from the Alberta Government. (HO, Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta/The Canadian Press)

“The forecast today expects some precipitation, but with a chance of thunderstorms that will yield variable and gusty winds that can prove a challenge to ongoing operations,” an update from the Alberta government on the fire near High Level said Saturday.

“While precipitation can dampen fire activity and aid suppression efforts, any return of warm and dry weather can revive fire behaviour.”

Slave Lake, a town of 6,500, was partially destroyed by a wildfire in 2011.

On its Facebook page Saturday, the town posted phone numbers for mental health support lines for anyone who may be triggered by the wildfires. It noted flashbacks, changes in sleep patterns and increased use of alcohol or drugs may be signs people are having difficulty coping.

A number of communities—Chipewyan Lakes, the Hamlet of Wabasca and Bigstone Cree Nation—in the Slave Lake Forest Area have already been evacuated, as well as some communities in the High Level management area.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Friday that Ottawa has granted Alberta’s request for help from the Canadian Forces. The military will help airlift evacuees, transport supplies and provide medical assistance.

Smoke from the fires, meanwhile, continued to disrupt normal activities throughout much of Alberta on the weekend.

An air quality statement for Calgary was lifted on Saturday, but remained in effect for much of northern Alberta.

In Edmonton, a festival to promote tree-planting was cancelled on Saturday due to poor air quality.

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