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Shifting winds threaten to fan the flames of Alberta wildfires | CBC News

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Once sleeping giants, Alberta’s wildfires are threatening to show the full extent of their power.

High temperatures have been unrelenting in recent days and no rain is in the forecast.

While temperatures will ease somewhat in the week ahead, the changing forecast is expected to bring new dangers.

A shift in wind direction could lead to “unpredictable wildfire behaviour,” wildfire information officer Christie Tucker told a news conference Monday.

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As of Monday afternoon, 90 wildfires were burning in forest protection areas across the province, Tucker said, 23 of them out of control. 

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes and Alberta’s wildfire resources have been pushed to their limit. 

WATCH | Fire conditions in northern Alberta remain dangerous and volatile: 

The town of High Level, Alta., is struggling to find room for the influx of people fleeing several active wildfires, whipped up by growing winds. As the race continues to beat back the flames, there’s fear High Level could soon be cut off.

The latest evacuation order came Monday afternoon for the 1,850 residents of Valleyview in northwestern Alberta.

The town is threatened by two out-of-control wildfires known together as the Sturgeon Lake Complex.

The fires are burning to the west and northwest of Valleyview and together have burned 5,000 hectares.

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Residents of the town have been told to get out immediately and to travel south on Highway 43 to Whitecourt.

‘Dangerous conditions’

Tucker said winds are expected to shift from the southeast to the northwest with gusts of up to 50 kilometres per hour.

“Combined with the heat and dryness, this will cause dangerous conditions,” she said.

“[Tuesday], strong northerly winds and gusts are expected to continue with little precipitation expected.”

Tucker said the Sturgeon Lake Complex has seen “extreme wildfire behaviour,” and that one of the fires has moved beyond its fireguard.

“A firebreak is not a fail safe operation from wildfire; it is something that we use as a preventative measure to slow down or stop movement of a fire. The fact that it has moved in one area does not mean that the rest of the firebreak that firefighters have been working on will not hold.”

Wildfire researcher Mike Flannigan echoed the dangers of the wind. 

“We’ve got so much active fire on the landscape,” he said Monday.  “It’s been very dry and now we have a cold front coming but, unfortunately, there is no precipitation.

“It will cool off but the winds will pick up and it will be shifting winds too.” 

When the wind changes direction, the direction of the fire will change with it, leading to rapid growth as a new flank consumes previously untouched fuels, Flannigan said. 

“The side of the fire becomes the head of the fire so there’s opportunity for fires to grow rapidly during this episode,” he said. 

People in yellow overalls walk through a burned out forest.
Members from the 3rd Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry participate in fire prevention operations in Grande Prairie, Alta., on May 12, 2023. (Master Cpl. Cass Moon, Canadian Forces Imagery Technician)

Flannigan, a research chair at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, said he is growing increasingly concerned about the scope of the crisis in Alberta.

He said the province is fighting massive fires on too many fronts, stretching resources thin.

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“There’s so many fires,” he said. “That’s the problem, it’s spread out over a lot of different regions.

“If you get too many fires at once, even with the best fire management agencies in the world … you cannot put the fire out. And if you want to put the fire out, it’s best to do when it’s small.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Edmonton Monday to meet with Canadian Armed Forces personnel who are helping fight wildfires burning across Alberta.

Soldiers began fanning out last week after the province, which remains in a state of emergency, requested military aid.

About 300 military members have been deployed to Grande Prairie, Drayton Valley and Fox Creek, joining firefighters on the front lines of an unprecedented wildfire season. 

Firefighters faced volatile conditions over the weekend. An upper ridge in the atmosphere brought daily highs hovering around 30 C. Record-breaking daily temperatures were recorded Sunday in communities across central and northern Alberta, including Edmonton.

To date this year, more than 465 wildfires have burned across Alberta, consuming nearly 532,000 hectares of forest and destroying hundreds of homes, plus businesses and critical infrastructure.

Much of northern and central Alberta remains under heat warnings. Special air quality statements are in effect due to wildfire smoke.

The rising temperatures are now also a concern in Alberta’s south. Conditions in the south aren’t as extreme at the moment, but the province may need to reposition resources so it can be ready to respond quickly to new fires, a wildfire spokesperson said on Sunday.

More than 17,000 Albertans are currently displaced from their homes.

Evacuation orders came late Sunday evening for the remote northern community of Chipewyan Lake, home to around 80 residents. Around 772 residents of Chateh, Alta., were also ordered to evacuate. 

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Chateh, northwest of High Level, is part of the Dene Tha’ First Nation, which also includes the communities of Bushe River and Meander River. At this time last year, Chateh residents were fleeing their homes due to widespread flooding.

WATCH | How is the federal government helping First Nations hit by wildfires? 

How is the federal government helping First Nations hit by wildfires?

Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu discusses how the federal government is sending aid to a growing number of First Nations affected by wildfires.

‘We’re surrounded’ 

In High Prairie, Alta., Mayor Brian Panasiuk said residents have grown accustomed to watching the skies for smoke, a telltale sign of possible flare-ups.

“The flare-ups, they come quick and start the fire moving again,” he said. “If the winds shift, it can move quickly.”

It’s an anxious time for the northern Alberta town. As evacuees from surrounding communities trickle in, residents have been preparing for the possibility that they too might be forced to leave. The town has been on evacuation alert for 10 days.

Fires are burning throughout the surrounding area, including one about seven kilometres from town limits. The closest fire to High Prairie is to the south, but there are also large fires to the north, and fires to the east, Panasiuk said.

“We’re surrounded,” he said Sunday. “They’re getting close to us and that’s our big concern … We’re very fortunate that they’ve been kept away.”

Meanwhile, Alberta Education said Monday that students who have been displaced by fire for 10 or more school days will be exempted from writing diploma exams, but may still write the exams in June or August if they choose.

Use the slider below to see the extent of the fire damage to the area north of Lobstick and west of Wildwood. 

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