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Record heat results in uptick in wildfires in Fort McMurray area

Thursday, July 15th 2021, 9:30 am - 'The heat conditions this year have been something that we've never seen'

A mix of record-breaking hot, dry weather and a series of lightning strikes has caused dozens of fires in the Fort McMurray forest area but officials say the fires aren't threatening communities and are being managed.

There have been 79 fires this season, with 14,500 hectares — or over 35,800 acres — burned, said Lynn Daina, wildfire information officer for the Fort McMurray forest area. On average over the last five years, there would have been 58 fires at this point in the season.

Since Friday, 32 new wildfires were caused by lightning, Daina said.

"With the weather that we've had… it's easy to ignite with the lightning," she said. "The heat conditions this year have been something that we've never seen."

The recent record-breaking heat that enveloped western Canada set several records for Fort McMurray, said Alysa Pederson, meteorologist with Environment Canada.

July 15 2021 AM PR Temps Icons Saturday

June 2021 was the warmest June on record for Fort McMurray. On June 30, temperatures in Fort McMurray hit 40.1 C — the hottest the community has seen.

The forecast for the next few weeks shows above-average temperatures too, said Pederson.

There has also been a lack of precipitation. Last spring was the fifth-driest ever in the area, said Pederson.

Normally 73 mm of precipitation falls in June, but this year only 40.3 mm fell, she said.

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The current number of fires is a "bit above average," said Daina.

There are currently 42 active fires in the area, including several deemed out of control. Among them are a 66-hectare fire is less than 10 kilometres east of the Imperial Oil facility north of Fort McMurray, and a 50-hectare fire about 30 kilometres east of Fort McKay.

None of the fires are threatening any communities so far, but several are being watched, Daina said.

There are currently 76 firefighters and staff, 13 helicopters and two air tankers working on controlling the fires.

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The Fort McKay Fire Department has helped with one nearby wildfire, said deputy fire chief Ron Quintal.

"It is something that we are monitoring," said Quintal, but right now there are no fires of concern for the community.

The fire department takes wildfires in the area seriously, as the community has had to evacuate three times in the past due to fires, he said.

To prevent them from happening in Fort McKay, the fire department has implemented plans such as fire breaks and emergency management plans, he said.

"The community is very much so prepared at this point," said Quintal.

There is a fire restriction in place in the Fort McMurray area, but Daina advises residents to be cautious because they can ignite quickly.

Quintal encourages residents to be careful when out on the land and says prevention is key in these hot conditions.

Residents can get regular wildfire updates on the provincial app AB Wildfire Status.

This article, written by Jamie Malbeuf, was originally published for CBC News.

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