05/11/2012 06:58 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta Wildfires: Threat In North Ranges From High To Extreme


EDMONTON - As people in Slave Lake prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of wildfires that ravaged the town, the threat of new wildfires in the region was listed as extreme Friday.

Alberta fire officials say the forests north of Edmonton are bone-dry, trees and grass haven't greened up, humidity is low and winds are strong and gusty.

The combination of factors means the potential in the northern half of the province for wildfires ranges from high, to very-high to extreme, Geoffrey Driscoll, a wildfire information officer, said Friday.

"Those types of conditions are really ripe for strong and big wildfires," Driscoll said.

"If a wildfire does start in a lot of these areas it can grow really big, really fast,"

That is exactly what happened last May when wildfires, whipped by high winds, tore through the town of Slave Lake northwest of Edmonton, destroying more than 500 homes and buildings and forcing thousands of people to flee to safety. Damage is estimated at close to $1 billion.

Alberta isn't taking the chance of that happening again.

The province has marshalled a force in the Lesser Slave Lake region of 84 firefighters, 27 support staff, six heavy equipment groups, fourteen helicopters and two air tanker groups to quickly jump on any new wildfires.

The government also launched its fire season a month early in March to be ready.

Driscoll said the forests in northern Alberta received less than half of the usual snowfall over the winter, making the trees and brush drier than normal.

Other areas of the province where the wildfire threat is worrisome include the Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, High Prairie, Lac la Biche and Whitecourt regions.

With little or no lightning at this time of year any wildfires that do break out are almost certainly caused by people or machinery, such as all terrain vehicles.

"Debris gets caught in off-highway vehicles like quads and becomes super-heated through the exhaust, drops to the ground and starts a wildfire," Driscoll said.

"People really need to be careful when they are out in the forest."

There were 41 wildfires burning in the province Friday, including one out of control blaze about 20 kilometres east of the community of Fox Creek.

Alberta crews have responded to more than 240 wildfires since early April, all of which appear to have been caused by people.

The cause of the Slave Lake wildfires last year are still under RCMP investigation.