Alberta wildfire signals it's time to Firewise

Fires in Alberta CanadaCanada's raging wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alberta, has displaced 80,000 residents (photo, left) and torched 1,600 homes. Strong winds now are driving flames south, threatening other communities.

Northwest residents might wonder, how can a massive fire break out so early in the season, and so far north in a subarctic climate? Fort McMurray lies 236 air miles north of Edmonton, just 195 miles south of the Northwest Territories. The average high on May 5 is only 59° F.

But drought and unseasonably hot temperatures, up to 90° F, have baked northern Alberta recently, priming its forests for explosive fire. The Canadian Press reports that officials believe the Fort McMurray fire was caused by humans, not lightning.

The National Fire Database says half of Alberta's 1,200 annual wildfires are caused by humans, with lightning accounting for 47%.

Northwest residents should not count on our damp winter to suppress wildfire danger here. Russ Hobbs, assistant fire chief in the Kittitas County area ravaged by the 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire, said abundant winter moisture could prompt excess foliage to grow this spring, then dry out under the summer sun to become wildfire fuel.

But you can make a difference. Rural and suburban residents can help protect their property from wildfire by following simple Firewise steps. Now is the time to do so — Saturday, May 7 is National Wildfire Preparedness Day.

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