Lightning sparks more wildfires in northern Alberta as firefighters face another tough day

Slightly cooler temperatures are moving into central and northern Alberta where firefighters are still battling multiple out-of-control wildfires including several new ones in the Fort McMurray forest area caused by an overnight lightning storm.

Officials with the ministries of Forestry and Parks and Public Safety and Emergency Services provided an update Thursday afternoon along with Alberta Wildfire.

"Now, more than ever, it's crucial that Albertans exercise extreme caution to prevent further human-caused wildfires that place additional strain on our resources and personnel," said Todd Loewen, minister of forestry and parks.

The province is receiving help from other provinces via the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

Approximately 140 firefighters have come in from Ontario and New Brunswick to assist Alberta firefighters.

Firefighters are managing to minimize the growth of the largest blaze in the Cattail Lake Complex wildfire burning eight kilometres northeast of Suncor's Firebag production site and about 70 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray, at 28,000 hectares.

But the frontline is in for another day of tough conditions, with high temperatures and low humidity, Alberta Wildfire said in an update. "The forecast also shows that from about 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight, we will see the most intense winds, which is likely when we will see fire growth."

Environment Canada is forecasting temperatures will reach 28 C before dropping back Friday to a high of 21 C.

Melissa Story, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said there has been rapid fire growth due to the heat wave impacting parts of the province.

"As a result, the total area burned has doubled in the last 48 hours," Story said.

There are currently 92 wildfires burning in the forest protection area according to Alberta Wildfire. Of those, 29 are classified as out of control. Twenty-eight are being held and 35 are under control.

On Thursday, Alberta's largest fire grew to 41,000 hectares. That blaze has led to the evacuation of 981 residents from Garden River, Alta., roughly 800 kilometres north of Edmonton in Wood Buffalo National Park.

Mike Ellis, public safety and emergency services minister, said Little Red River Cree Nation is leading the response.

"I'd like to reassure everyone that Alberta's government stands ready to support the First Nation in any and every way that we can."

Temperatures in the area of Garden River are expected to be a few degrees cooler today, peaking at 26 C. While a possible thunderstorm could bring some much-needed moisture, it also comes with lightning strikes increasing the danger of new wildfires.

Firefighters used a method called "ignition" which removed available fuel from the wildfire to prevent the spread into nearby vegetation. This method is often used to "bring" the wildfire to where crews can anchor it to a natural break, like a road. (July 10, 2024 at 8:00 p.m. on EWF061).
Firefighters in the Edson forest area on Wednesday evening were removing available fuel, as part of an effort to prevent a wildfire's spread into nearby vegetation. (Submitted by Alberta Wildfire)

In the Edson forest area, where Alberta Wildfires has classed wildfire danger as extreme, Environment and Climate Change Canada on Thursday issued a severe thunderstorm watch for Brazeau County, about 170 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, near the Alberta communities of Cynthia and Lodgepole.

The alert noted that the storm could produce hail, heavy rain and strong winds.

Several out-of-control fires are burning in the Edson forest area, including one about 18 kilometres northeast of Cynthia that is estimated at about 74 hectares.

"Heavy equipment worked overnight to build a containment line around the perimeter. Crews have returned to the fireline this morning. A big thank you to all the heavy equipment operators that make up our wildfire family," Alberta Wildfire wrote in an update Thursday.

A fire ban is in place for Alberta's entire forest protection, which covers much of northern Alberta and the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

Under it, all fire permits issued by the Alberta government are now suspended or cancelled, and all outdoor wood fires are banned, including those in campgrounds and in backyard firepits.