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Town of Canmore prepared for wildfire season

“Alberta Forestry will focus on the suppression of the wildlife and Canmore Fire-Rescue will focus on impacts to life safety, critical infrastructure and structures within the town."

CANMORE – The Town of Canmore is bracing for the wildfire season this year which is already off to a blazing start in Alberta.

Town of Canmore officials say they are ready to go at a moment’s notice with an evacuation plan that can be adapted quickly and used in any type of disaster including wildfire; however, precise details of this plan are not publicly available because of how complex responding to hazards can be.

They say the plan addresses safe routes for those with vehicles as well as evacuation considerations for people without access to a car, identifies places where individuals can go to safely wait for transportation out of the community or area, and considers tourists and visitors.

“These are not shared publicly because they outline what actions could be taken in a response, but what actions are actually taken are very dependent on the variables present in the response,” said Caitlin Miller, director of emergency management for the Town of Canmore.”

“The challenge is that we simply do not know ahead of time where the wildfire will ignite, what time of day or day of week it will ignite, what the weather looks like and all those other details that are very important for us to consider,  especially if issuing evacuation orders and establishing routes.

“We want to make sure we are communicating accurate information to keep people safe. The last thing we would want to do is give people incorrect information that puts residents, visitors and emergency responders in harm’s way.”

The Town of Canmore municipal emergency management plan considers all aspects of emergency management from mitigation and preparedness to response and recovery.

Wildfire is the top-rated threat identified in the Town of Canmore’s emergency management hazard identification and risk assessment.

As of Wednesday (May 15), there were 45 active wildfires in Alberta, including carryovers from last year. So far, 297 wildfires have been put out.

In the Calgary Forest Area (CFA), which includes the Bow Valley outside of Banff National Park, eight have been put out, with a small one in the southern part of the region considered under control.

When a wildfire ignites in the Town of Canmore, Miller said the fire department will provide the initial attack response and Alberta Forestry is immediately notified.

“Alberta Forestry will focus on the suppression of the wildlife and Canmore Fire-Rescue will focus on impacts to life safety, critical infrastructure and structures within the town,” she said.

Miller said there would likely be a call to mutual aid partners in the region and the municipal emergency management plan would be activated.

“If the evacuation plan is implemented we would work with support from the RCMP and other rescue agencies like Kananaskis Mountain Rescue as required,” she said.

“Traffic management and control plans would be developed and activated to respond to the current conditions.”

In 2021, a wildfire broke out at Dead Man’s Flat, which Miller said was framed by some in the Canmore community as evidence the Town doesn’t have plans in place or would not be able to evacuate.

“While the wildfire hazard itself did not directly impact the community, there are impacts felt across Canmore by way of traffic congestion, and lack of traffic management,” she said.

“People were trying to drive in the same direction as the hazard, not away from it, and without a traffic management plan in place that led to a lot of congestion in town and some neighbourhoods with limited access were more impacted than others,” she added.

“I want to be clear the fire near Dead Man’s Flats is not indicative of what an evacuation would be like in Canmore, but we have learned a lot from that event.”

Canmore’s wildfire plans focus on suppression and containment. The plans break down the community into zones with their own risk assessments based on key infrastructure, wildlife behaviour potential and structural makeup of the area.

“Staging areas and, when appropriate, perimeter sprinkler line locations are pre-determined, access routes are highlighted, and other fire information is highlighted for each zone,” said Miller.

Within the CFA, there are two primary wildfire bases where fire tech, helitack and unit crews are stationed. The closest one to Canmore is the Elbow firebase, while the other is located at Livingstone Gap north of Blairmore.

The closest of two air tanker bases in the CFA is located at Springbank, with the other at Pincher Creek serving the southwestern portion of the forest area.

“During times in the summer when our hazard is high we will have tanker groups based there that can deliver retardant and water to us,” said CFA manager Erica Samis, who is with the forestry division of Alberta Forestry and Parks.

While the public is often helpful in reporting signs of smoke or wildfire, Samis said there are seven staffed fire lookouts in the CFA, including one on Barrier Mountain above Barrier Lake in Kananaskis Country, which opened up last week for the season and stays operational until fall.

She said there is also a camera on top of Grotto Mountain directly linked to the CFA office.

“We also have detection routes we follow through fixed wing and helicopter and we also have ground-based detection routes,” she said.

“Our patrol routes cover the Bow Valley and we come in and around Canmore with helicopter patrol routes that we fly.”

In the CFA, there are 32 initial attack firefighters, including two eight-person helitack (HAC) crews and four four-person HAC crews that are stationed at either the Elbow or The Gap fire bases. There are four engine crews outfitted with complete type 6 engines, meaning equipped with water.

Samis said the CFA was also provided with a 20-person sustained crew this year, which is called on when the fire gets away.

“If the fire escapes initial attack and it looks like we’re going to be on that fire for multiple days, our unit crews move in and they start working that fire,” she said.

In addition, there are three eight-person FireTACs - which are First Nation crews which have been contracted for 123 days this upcoming summer compared to 92 days last year.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve added two eight-person FireTAC crews and then this year we’ve added 20-person sustained action crews,” said Samis.

“Calgary has received substantially more wildfire fighting resources over the past couple of years, which is great.”

Kevin Topolnicki, a CFA wildfire prevention officer with Alberta Forestry and Parks, said the CFA has 50 different mutual aid agreements with partners from Banff and Canmore to Medicine Hat, which along with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, the CFA can draw on when a wildfire breaks outs.

He said there is also a provincial agreement with Banff National Park.

“I want everyone to know you are not alone,” said Topolnicki.

“We are able to get resources moving if required during an incident.”

Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert said he was pleased to hear about the additional resources this year.

“Let’s hope it keeps going that way and let’s hope that you’re not needed, but boy is it good to know you are there when you are needed,” he said.

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