Alberta is facing an early onslaught of wildfires as unseasonably dry, hot weather persists across the province. With more sunshine days per year than any other province in Canada, it’s not out of the norm for Alberta to experience clear skies and low rainfall in spring. But with daytime highs around 30 degrees Celsius, and no rain in the forecast until at least May 12, the province has seen an early and unusually intense start to its wildfire season, prompting fears for the summer ahead.
On May 4, more than three dozen heat records were broken across much of the province, with the hottest place being Fort McMurray, which reached 32.5 degrees Celsius. The last time this region experienced this type of heat was in 2016, when temperatures reached almost 32 degrees Celsius. That year, a wildfire destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses in Fort McMurray and prompted the evacuation of 90,000 people, resulting in the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history.
Fires are currently burning across Alberta, with hot spots in parts of the County of Grande Prairie, the town of Rainbow Lake and the municipal district of Fairview, all of which have been evacuated as of May 6, along with numerous other locations. A provincial state of emergency has been declared. As of May 10, the number of active wildfires in the province is 76.
Are Alberta’s early wildfires normal?
May is typically the start of wildfire season in Alberta as snowmelt uncovers dead vegetation, providing fuel for fires. However, according to a news release, unusually warm, dry weather combined with strong winds have made it easier for fires to spark and spread this year, resulting in wildfires that have already burned tens of thousands of hectares of land.
To help individuals better understand where the fires are and their relative risk, Esri Canada has released a digital map showcasing near real-time locations of the wildfires in Alberta. The map is based on a global map of fire activity created in partnership with NASA’s Land, Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for Earth Observation Data (LANCE). The layer visible to viewers depicts detectable thermal activity from VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) satellites for the last seven days.
VIIRS is a scanning radiometer device aboard the Suomi NPP and NOAA-20 satellites that collects imagery and radiometric measurements of Earth’s elements, such as the land, atmosphere, cryosphere and oceans in numerous visible and infrared bands. Data is automatically downloaded from LANCE every 15 minutes.
Resources like the Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard also allow individuals to track wildfires with public-facing information. However, this data may not be in real-time and can take hours to be updated.
The Government of Alberta continues to provide updates on the status of the fires, including wildfires of note that are determined to be of significant public interest and may threaten public safety, communities or critical infrastructure.