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EDMONTON — The Alberta government has declared an early start to the 2024 wildfire season in the face of low snowpacks and forecasts of dry weather to come.

Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said Tuesday the season is now underway — 10 days earlier than the usual start of March 1.

"We are confident we are ready to tackle the upcoming wildfire season head-on," he said.

Loewen said his department is asking for enough extra funding in the budget to hire an extra 100 firefighters. If that request is approved, they will be in the field by May 15, he said.

That's in addition to the 900 firefighters the province fielded in 2023, who are expected to be ready by April 15, said Loewen.

The new firefighters, if approved, won't be dedicated to any particular area.

"We move them around to areas we need them the most," said Loewen.

Loewen also said a permit is now required for any burning in the forest protection area. Fire bans are likely to follow.

"We're going to be more proactive (on fire bans) than we were last year. I think we're going to be more prepared than we were last year," he said.

Alberta's wildfire season traditionally runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, but Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen says it's now underway — 10 days earlier than usual.

The extra staffing and permit requirement comes after last year's record-setting fire season, which saw 22,000 square kilometres burned. That's about 10 times the five-year average.

A total of 54 new fires and those remaining from last year continue to burn in the province.

This season is expected to be similarly hot. Large parts of Alberta are under severe or extreme drought and an El Nino season is predicted to bring continued warm temperatures.

"That's been causing us to have warmer and drier temperatures overall," said Loewen. "There's some suggestion that by June we'll leave that effect but that's all projections at this time."

Loewen repeated earlier promises of new equipment allowing crews to fight fires at night, when flames and temperatures are lower. Volunteer programs will be expanded, he said.

"There will be some online training and some testing on-site," he said. "Anybody that's brought in to help will work with experienced wildfire staff.

"We want to be sure we keep everybody as safe as possible."

Heather Sweet, New Democrat forestry critic, said the government is already behind.

“Even though the government knew there were active wildfires burning underground over the winter, the (United Conservative government) laid off wildland firefighters for the season and waited until the beginning of the 2024 wildfire season to start hiring with no training time," she said.

“We are behind on training and staffing."

James Gault of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said there's no guarantee the firefighters will be available early.

"A lot of these people he's hired are students and some of them aren't even available until the middle of April," he said.

Gault said he's hearing that some firefighters who were expected to start next week haven't received offer letters yet. Volunteers also take time to be prepared. Nighttime operations will be new to Alberta crews, who will take time to become proficient.

As well, budget requests are just that — requests.

"Anything can change right up until budget day," Gault said.

"We are still talking about Band-Aid solutions to a serious issue that we know is going to happen."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2024.