BANFF – As the province of Alberta gears up for wildfire season, which officially began on March 1, close tabs are being kept on the Dormer wildfire on the border of Banff National Park in case it sparks up again in spring.
The 700-hectare Dormer wildfire, which began as a Parks Canada prescribed fire last September before it got out of control and spread onto provincial lands in October, is still classified as being held because there was no confirmation in fall that it was out.
Wildfire officials say the wildfire, which is jointly managed by the province and Parks Canada, will be reassessed in spring given potential the fire may have smouldered beneath the snow through winter and flare up again in spring.
“We’re getting daily photos of the overall landscape now with a Parks Canada portable camera, so there is snow on-site, but if the snow starts to leave, we’ll be able to talk to Parks Canada and determine our next course of action,” said Anastasia Drummond, a wildfire information officer with the Calgary Forest Area.
“Once the snow is gone and we see more spring-like conditions, we’ll be able to scan the site and assess what’s happening on the ground, what’s happened over the winter, and then deploy any resources as needed for the spring.”
The Dormer Valley prescribed fire, located about 45 kilometres north of the Banff townsite, was initially lit by Parks Canada in September 2022 to restore natural grassland meadows, which provide year-round habitat for bighorn sheep, goats, grizzly bears, wolves, elk and the newly introduced bison herd.
Until the night of Oct. 19, the fire was active in isolated areas and was primarily burning within previously burned areas. However, due to unseasonable temperatures, low relative humidity, and high winds, the fire spread eastward onto provincial lands.
Alberta Wildfire and Parks Canada firefighters immediately tried to put it out, and by Oct. 24, the fire was classified as being held, a status which means the wildfire is not expected to grow beyond pre-determined boundaries given current resources and forecast weather.
At the height of the blaze, there were up to 22 wildland firefighters and personnel, with four helicopters dumping water on the fire. Crews were also dedicated to deploying sprinklers on cabins and outfitters’ camps in the area.
The Dormer wildlife was just one of 1,246 wildfires that burned 130,858 hectares in the forest protection area of Alberta last year.
Drummond said it is too early to predict the severity of the 2023 season, as the greatest impact will be from late season snowfall and early spring rainfall.
“In this southwestern corner of the province we did receive reasonable snowfall over the winter, so that’s very welcome, and quite the snow event last week,” she said.
“We’re not going into the season in any kind of severe drought mode, but it’s really the late season snowfall that we’re all accustomed to and early spring rains that will set the tone.”
With Alberta’s official wildfire season running March 1 to Oct. 31, Drummond said wildland firefighters, air tankers and other specialized equipment are ready for the season ahead.
She said the province has hired more than 400 wildland firefighters and 300 seasonal support positions across Alberta, noting the first wave of seasonal crews are completing fitness testing and will be in place this week.
“We have our first crew – it will be about five wildland firefighters – immediately in place and over the coming days, weeks and months we’ll have additional staff we’ll be on-boarding,” she said.
“We’ve got equipment and specialized contracts in place and some of the facilities will begin to open to support wildfire season start-up.”
According to the province, more than 60 per cent of the 1,246 wildfires across Alberta last year were human-caused.
Drummond said the vast majority of the human-caused wildfires in this southwestern part of Alberta are related to recreation, such as improperly extinguished or completely abandoned campfires.
“That’s a major problem for us in this part of the province, but we’re also seeing this emerging trend of wildfires being caused by fireworks and exploding targets,” she said.
“Fireworks and exploding targets are prohibited in the Calgary Forest Area without prior written permission.”
To report a wildfire in the province, call 310-FIRE (310-3473) toll-free, from anywhere in Alberta.
Up-to-date information on fire advisories, restrictions, bans and OHV restrictions is available at albertafirebans.ca or by calling 1-866-FYI-FIRE (1-866-394-3473).