2020 Alberta wildfire season well below five-year average

November 2, 2020

By: The Working Forest Staff

EDMONTON JOURNAL — Alberta experienced one of its quietest wildfire seasons in recent years as cold, wet weather helped keep any large blazes at bay during 2020.

Travis Fairweather, a wildfire information officer with the province, said that this year’s 700 fires and 3,300 hectares burned was far below the average of the past five years.

“If you compare that to last year, at the same time, we had 989 wildfires and they burned 880,000 hectares,” said Fairweather. “Then if you compare that to our five-year average, this time of year is around 1,320 wildfires that would’ve burned around 405,000 hectares, so we’re quite a bit below.”

There were two fires listed on the Alberta wildfire map as of Friday. One was classified as under control while the other was being held.

Fairweather said cold, wet weather in many parts of the province kept large fires to a minimum. He also noted the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may have helped as people stayed home instead of frequenting local camping spots.

“Certainly, the weather would be the main factor, especially in the spring. Around May is when we see our biggest and most impactful wildfires, historically speaking, and this May and June, we had quite cold and rainy weather,” said Fairweather.

This year, the Devil’s Head wildfire west of Calgary was the province’s largest wildfire, burning 2,416 hectares of forest as of Friday. That pales in comparison to the Chuckegg Creek wildfire that began near High Level in 2019 and burned for 16 months, destroying 334,722 hectares of land.

Fairweather said crews continued to work on the Chuckegg Creek fire checking for hot spots. It was officially classified as extinguished on Oct. 13.

“It was more monitoring it just making sure that it wasn’t showing any more smoke or any more heat within that perimeter,” said Fairweather.

He said the province was able to return some favours this year by sending crews to other jurisdictions to help fight their wildfires. That included the U.S. state of Oregon, which sent crews to Alberta in recent years.

“I believe we had more than 2,700 firefighters and support staff here last year. So to be able to help them out at all is a huge honour for our firefighters,” said Fairweather.

2021 season difficult to forecast

The 2020 season bucks the recent trend of summer weather bringing larger fires. The five seasons with the smallest burn area on record came between 1983 and 1997, while five of the 10 seasons with the most area burned have taken place after 2009.

Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta, said while this year may have been a welcome break from the smoke and flames, it doesn’t mean future years will bring the same reprieve. 

“Next year will depend on the day-to-day weather during the fire season, particularly in May,” said Flannigan. “If we get too hot, dry and windy, we’re going to have challenges and fire and smoke and all that.”

He said next year is considered likely to be a La Nina year, in which ocean temperatures cool affecting wind, temperatures, and rainfall, which makes predicting weather difficult.

“It’s so dependent on the weather and the weather is so variable that you are going to get quiet years, you’re going to get busy years,” said Flannigan.

Flannigan also said that as climate change continues to affect the planet, extreme seasons on both ends of the scale will be more commonplace.

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