Trudeau meets with military personnel helping with Alberta wildfires

·4 min read

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped in Edmonton on Monday to meet with military personnel who are helping fight wildfires in Alberta that worsened under the weekend heat.

Trudeau was given an overview of the fires at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton and, along with federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, was briefed about the weather forecast and threats from rising temperatures and dryness.

"(It's) almost without precedent to have this level of fire activity in the province,” Blair said ahead of the briefing.

About 300 soldiers are being deployed across Alberta to help with the fires, which have forced thousands to flee their homes and rural properties.

Blair said Ottawa is in talks with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico to bring in additional firefighters.

Some reservists dressed in yellow jumpsuits and bright blue safety helmets trudged through charred forest near Drayton Valley over the weekend.

Working along firefighters, they used tools, shovels and water to put out smouldering trees and hot spots.

Adam Norris was dousing his property near Drayton Valley with water Monday morning, more than a week after fire torched his farm and land. A house, garage, vehicles, animals and irreplaceable family items were lost.

"(I'm) running on a lot of coffee and adrenalin," Norris said as he continued to fight hot spots that flared up during the hot weekend.

Officials warn rising temperatures that have been a problem for crews battling fires in the province's north have also become a concern in the south.

Josee St-Onge of Alberta Wildfire said conditions in the south aren't as extreme, but the province may need to move resources so it can be ready to respond quickly to new fires.

The number of evacuees in Alberta grew to more than 19,300 Sunday, with 26 of 87 active wildfires considered out of control as of Monday afternoon.

Crews have made great progress battling the fire threatening Brazeau County southwest of Edmonton, which includes the town of Drayton Valley, the county said Monday.

More than 200 people are working on the fire line, the county said, adding heat scans were used to identify hot spots.

Norris said he knows many neighbours and other community members are eager to return to their homes. But it's just not safe.

"There’s some incredibly scary places that are still lighting up here," he said.

Members of the Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta, which has been under an evacuation order for nearly two weeks, are struggling, said Darryel Sowan, the community’s emergency management communications co-ordinator.

There has been significant damage, homes are destroyed and the wildfire remains out of control.

"(The) community is dealing as best as they could under the circumstances, but (everyone) wants to go home of course," Sowan said in an email.

Kyle Brittain, a storm chaser and former wildland firefighter, said the rising temperatures created blistering infernos where he was, about 50 kilometres south of Grand Prairie.

He said the only saving grace was a lack of wind, which meant the fires were growing slowly.

"You can be standing 500 metres back or more and feel bursts of radiant heat coming off of these flames when they engulf a stand of coniferous trees," Brittain said Monday.

"You can hear the roar from several kilometres away.”

Wildfires have also been a concern in Alberta's neighbouring jurisdictions.

Parts of B.C.'s Peace River region remain under evacuation orders. In the southern N.W.T., the K'atl'odeeche First Nation and town of Hay River ordered evacuations Sunday.

And in Saskatchewan, a wildfire near the northern community of Buffalo Narrows has prompted a state of emergency. Some residents are leaving because the smoke is affecting their health and the power is out.

The fires in the west have caused smoke to drift as far east as Ontario. Environment Canada has issued air quality statements for northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and into northwestern Ontario.

The department said people with lung or heart disease, older adults, children, pregnant people and people who work outdoors are at higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by wildfire smoke.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.

— With files from Emily Blake in Yellowknife


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Kelly Geraldine Malone and Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press