Growing Wildfires Across Western Canada Forcing Thousands From Their Homes

Growing Wildfires Across Western Canada Forcing Thousands From Their Homes
A fire department vehicle enters the evacuated neighbourhood of Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 15, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)
The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her heart goes out to Fort McMurray residents forced a second time in eight years to flee a wildfire, but public safety is paramount.

“I know that this will bring back difficult memories from the devastating fires of 2016,” Ms. Smith said on May 15 at a fire information update in Edmonton.

“And I’m sure these memories will create fear and uncertainty for many in Fort McMurray.

“My sympathy is with everyone facing this situation, but safety must remain our top priority.

“Our government will have Alberta’s back whenever a disaster strikes.”

Ms. Smith’s government has promised those displaced by fire evacuations will be eligible to receive $1,250 per adult and $600 per child after they are out of their homes for seven days.

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said fierce whipping winds accompanied by soaring columns of smoke sent the fire racing in multiple directions on May 14, threatening the southwest edge of the city of 68,000 and leading to the evacuation of about 6,000 people in four neighbourhoods.

Mr. Loewen says crews continue to fight the fire on the ground and in the air while also erecting fire guards to slow the blaze.

He said the area is under a fire ban and there is also a ban on off-road vehicles.

In 2016, a massive fire, nicknamed The Beast, forced 80,000 in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area to flee. It destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

On May 14 night, Jody Butz, the fire chief for the Fort McMurray region, said: “I know this is an extremely stressful situation, but I want to assure everyone that this fire activity is very different from that of 2016 Horse River wildfire.”

That fire roared through spruce trees and destroyed much of the oilsands community. The recovery took years.

But, he said, this year’s fire is different. It’s burning along the surface of the ground, through the aftermath of the former blaze, and has much less fuel. Burning muskeg is generating the smoke.

“We are way better positioned now,” Mr. Butz said.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said crews worked until 3 a.m. dropping water on the fire, which had grown to 210 square kilometres in size.

The fire was about 4.5 kilometres from the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881 – the main southern route out of the municipality—and about 5.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill, which is close to the city’s outskirts.

The municipality said crews are building a containment line near the landfill. Little rain on May 14 night was expected to have minimal impact on the fire, it added.

Wildfire season has started early, with several fires burning across Western Canada forcing residents out of their homes.

In British Columbia, a widening area around the northeastern community of Fort Nelson remained under evacuation, with a fire burning close by and another raging to the northwest.

Mayor Rob Fraser urged residents not to return to their homes, after RCMP had to relocate a safety checkpoint outside the community. He said emergency crews need to focus on fighting fires rather than looking out for people heading into harm’s way.

Structure Protection Branch director Kevin Delgarno said crews worked until about midnight on May 14, not into the next morning, as they had in the days before.

“The fire behaviour’s settled down and hasn’t been as aggressive.”

He said the forecast continued to look favourable.

In Manitoba, about 500 people have been forced out of their homes in the remote northwestern community of Cranberry Portage.