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Thousands evacuate as Alberta wildfire situation worsens

NDP leader Rachel Notley said a provincial state of emergency should be called; Premier Smith said it will be reviewed Saturday afternoon.

The Alberta government could consider a provincial state of emergency on Saturday, due to more than 100 wildfires burning and more than 24,500 evacuated from homes.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis provided an update to the media, and Albertans, on Saturday afternoon in Calgary.

As of 9:30 a.m., Premier Smith said that there were 103 wildfires burning, mostly in central and north central Alberta, covering 121,998 hectares across Alberta. Since 11 a.m. yesterday, 45 new fires have started. Further, 14 local states of emergency have been called.

“Much of Alberta has been experiencing a hot, dry spring and with so much kindling, all it takes is a few sparks to ignite some truly frightening wildfires,” Premier Smith said.

“These conditions have resulted in the unprecedented situation our province is facing today.”

Premier Smith said she wanted to ensure Albertans that, despite being in the midst of a provincial election, there is a stable and functioning government in place.

“I know that all of this is difficult for Albertans especially those who have been directly affected by these wildfires,” she said.

“I want to assure everyone that our province has the right tools, the right technology and the right resources in place to tackle this challenge, and people will get the supports that they need.”

An emergency cabinet meeting is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and Premier Smith said that all options for handling the response are on the table. That includes the potential declaration of a provincial state of emergency, she said.

Full information on the changing status of wildfires in Alberta can be found on the provincial website.

The province also said that they would be keeping Albertans and the media informed through daily briefings and technical updates.

Resources to fight the wildfires

Smith said that with the official government session wrapped, there’s a process to enable the emergency management cabinet committee. Then, there’s an additional process to get to a decision-making point on declaring a state of emergency.

“This is the reason why we've activated our emergency management Cabinet committee so that we can play that important role of hearing directly from Albertans who are affected and helping to bridge some of the communication as well as helping to bridge some of the issues between communities and help to elevate these issues,” Premier Smith said.

Christie Tucker with Alberta Wildfire said that Albertans should feel rest assured that firefighters are working around the clock to contain the fires.

“We're bringing in more resources all the time and we need to be flexible and move firefighters to where they're needed most,” she said.

Tucker expected up to an additional 200 firefighters to be deployed in Alberta over the next four days.

“We appreciate everyone's understanding in that we have professional wildfire management staff working on this all the time. It's front of mind, believe me,” she said.

Smith, in responding to questions about past budget cuts to provincial firefighting units, said that they would spare no expense to ensure the situation was handled and Albertans were kept safe.

“We put aside $1.5 billion as a contingency because we know that any given year you can end up with a significant amount of resources that need to be spent on emergency management,” Smith said.

“So, I don't think anyone needs to worry that there will not be sufficient resources.”

It’s a high-risk time of year, but fire activity is ‘very unusual’

Tucker said that typical April and May are high-risk times for wildfire.

“The snow has melted and evaporated, and we haven't quite got full bloom on trees and grasses, which does help us slow down fire growth,” she said.

“It's a high-danger time, but I do have to say this year is significantly higher as far as hectares burned than we've seen in the last five years.”

What’s making matters more pressing are the warmer temperatures and high winds whipping the fires along.  Tucker explained that later in the day presented the peak burning period due to warmth and an increase in wind speed.

She welcomed cooler weather in southern Alberta as it allowed them to potentially redeploy resources to more pressing areas.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, who is being kept apprised of the wildfire details by the Premier’s Office, also spoke Saturday afternoon.

She delivered a message directly to those affected by the fires.

“I know how frightening it must be to leave your home without knowing when you can return or what your community will look like,” she said.

Notley extended her support to the Premier and the province, offering experience from her government’s handling of the Fort McMurray wildfires back in 2016.   

Responding to questions, Notley said she didn’t have any insight into how budget reductions may have played a role in the fire spread.

“I do expect that after the fact there will be an opportunity to review our state of readiness leading up to this, as well as how things work going forward,” she said.

She did say that declaring a provincial state of emergency was the right thing to do at this time. Further, taking any resources from the federal government was important to get a handle on things.

  • With files from Aryn Toombs