Alberta county warns of danger when residents fight wildfires themselves

·3 min read

GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. — As frustration mounts over the response to wildfires that have forced thousands of Albertans to flee their homes and rural properties, one county is warning its residents against "unsanctioned acts" it says put lives in danger.

The County of Grande Prairie issued a statement saying a member of the public who was operating their own personal bulldozer on Friday "put themselves and crews in danger by knocking trees into the fire and nearly running over fire crews and their equipment.

The statement said it's "imperative" people understand that decisions on how to fight fires are highly coordinated and members of the public cannot act on their own, even if they mean well."

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"Our fire crews are made up of highly skilled firefighters trained in everything from structure protection to wildland firefighting and getting in their way places themselves and crews in danger and reduces our ability to protect people and property," the county said in the statement posted to its website on Saturday morning.

"Our goals are first to protect people, and second to protect property."

There were 83 active wildfires in the province as of Saturday afternoon, including 21 out of control, and about 16,500 people from several other communities in central and northern Alberta remained out of their homes.

Saturday's rising temperatures, which are forecast to continue throughout the weekend and into early next week, were expected to increase the spread of the fires.

"Everyone needs to understand the risk because it's changing so quickly. People need to understand there may be instances that their rescue wouldn't be possible," Agriculture Minister Nate Horner told a wildfire news conference Saturday, noting ranchers and farmers with concerns about their animals should contact municipal officials first.

"It's very important that we follow the evacuation orders, first and foremost."

During an information session hosted by the Grande Prairie Regional Emergency Partnership earlier this week, one of the residents forced from his home by the Dunes West fire said the blaze could have been stopped within 12 hours if the county had allowed people to perform their own fire prevention.

Others wanted to get back to check on farm animals that had to be left behind.

Josee St-Onge, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said the wildfire danger remains extreme in most of the province this weekend.

"While we have seen cooler temperatures and some rain in previous days, it's not enough to make a significant difference on most of these large wildfires. Fire activity will pick up today," St-Onge told Saturday's news conference.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was in Grande Prairie on Friday surveying the fire zone and meeting with local officials and Indigenous leaders.

On Saturday morning, while making an election campaign announcement on health care, she said the government had just approved construction of "a pretty extensive fire guard for the city."

About 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces are being deployed across the province to help with the blazes over the next few days. Firefighters deployed from other provinces are also currently fighting blazes in Alberta, and another 200 are expected in the coming days from the United States.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2023.

The Canadian Press