Over 24,000 residents throughout Western Canada have been ordered to evacuate their homes to escape active wildfires in the province of Alberta.
As of Saturday, there were 103 active wildfires in the province, burning around 121,909 hectares, approximately 301,243 acres, the Premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith, said at a news briefing Saturday.
Since Friday morning, there have been 45 new wildfire starts, she said.
The wildfires have increased from 92 that were reported on Friday, at least 31 of which are out of control, according to a news release from the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA). Of the 61 remaining fires reported Friday, 44 are under control and 17 are being suppressed and are not likely to spread. The province has seen an increase of 20 wildfires since Thursday, AEMA reported.
Mandatory evacuations have affected a total of 24,511 people living throughout northern and central Alberta, including Yellowhead County, Grande Prairie County, and First Nation communities like Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation and Little Red River Cree Nation.
An additional 5,200 residents are under an evacuation alert, including those in Parkland and Saddle Hills counties. Everything is subject to change as this is a “rapidly-evolving situation,” Smith said.
Smith activated the Emergency Management Cabinet Committee in response to the wildfires, which has been meeting daily since Friday.
She called the current situation “unprecedented” and assured residents that the government is prepared to use its emergency powers as needed.
“Our top priority is and always will be public safety and we’re being briefed regularly by the experts who are handling the response,” Smith said.
All options are on the table, including declaring a provincial state of emergency, Smith added.
“I know that all of this is difficult for Albertans, especially those who have been directly affected by these wildfires,” she said.
Fourteen counties and communities have declared states of local emergency, including Brazeau, Grande Prairie, Parkland and Lac Ste. Anne counties, as well as the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.
One of the largest wildfires reported by AEMA known as EWF-031 is located about 26 miles southeast of Edson, a town in west-central Alberta. The fire is 24,000 hectares, over 59,000 acres, and three helicopter crews were trying to tame the flames from above Friday, according to the agency.
The wildfire in Fox Lake (HWF-030), an unincorporated community in northern Alberta, was 4,383 hectares, almost 11,000 acres, and has destroyed 20 homes, a police station and a water treatment plant, according to AEMA. On Friday, seven helicopters, two air tankers and six structural protection crews were working to put out the fire.
Fox Lake is where most of the Little Red River Cree Nation resides, according to the community’s website.
“This is a stark reminder of just how unpredictable and powerful wildfires can be,” Stephen Lacroix, managing director of AEMA, told reporters on Friday. “I ask you to keep the affected folks in your thoughts today.”
A province-wide fire ban has been issued due to the current “unusually warm, dry weather” with strong winds that make it easier for wildfires to start and spread, according to AEMA. This includes any open burning, like backyard fire pits.
The province has also enforced an off-highway vehicle restriction, banning the recreational use of the vehicles on public land and designated trails.
There were also several road closures in north and central Alberta as of Saturday, according to 511.alberta.ca.