Firefighters listen to a briefing in Fort Smith. Photo: Epéchile Production
Fort Smith’s fire hasn’t moved much in the past week, but it’s still just a couple of kilometres away from the town and out of control.
“It’s like we’re living in Groundhog Day, every day is the same,” Fort Smith fire chief Adam McNab told Cabin Radio on Tuesday.
“We’re preparing for something that’s not happening. But we still need to be vigilant, we can’t become complacent in that we’ve been fortunate with fire activity to this point.”
Over the past couple of days, smoke has lingered over the community, shading the Wood Buffalo Complex fire and keeping temperatures on the ground lower. This has helped suppress fire activity.
Later this week, McNab said, the forecast calls for some weather events “that could have a significant impact on fire activity.”
Temperatures will be close to 30C over the next few days and winds will come from the west, pushing the fire toward the town. At the latest measurement, the fire was about 2.5 km from Bell Rock and Thebacha, and three kilometres from the town and Fort Fitzgerald.
McNab said a finger of the fire is growing north toward Fort Smith and crews have been struggling to control it, given it’s in an area with a lot of water that heavy equipment is unable to access.
The weekend may bring a little reprieve if forecast rain and lower temperatures occur.
McNab said the holding pattern is hard, not just for the people working in the community but also for families in evacuation centres across Alberta.
With the time afforded by the fire’s inactivity, crews have been able to improve structure protections, work on more firesmarting, and practice drills such as shooting water at targets, filling water trucks, and improving communications.
“Volunteers, firefighters, and all the agencies involved have been working very hard. There is a lot of really good work happening out there, and there are extensive lengths of the line that are showing very little activity,” said McNab.
“A lot of progress has been made and is being made. They are working 24-hour shifts now, with night crews out, so everything that can be done is definitely being done to end this event.”
How can the fire be controlled?
The unified command managing the fire response – which involves the Government of Northwest Territories, Parks Canada, Alberta Wildfire and the Town of Fort Smith – continues to look at “intolerable growth areas,” or areas where the fire could impact communities.
Firefighters must work out what level of fire suppression is needed to bring the fire to “being held” status, and what level of effort is needed to get to that point.
From there, they can start to develop a timeline for safely bringing people back.
McNab says finding the right time to share the town’s re-entry plan is “a balancing act.”
“If we start putting out education and messaging around re-entry, even if it’s proactive, it may trigger – through the game of telephone – that people can come back. And we want to make sure that we’re closer to ready before we start that conversation,” he said.
“But I expect over the coming days, we’ll have a really good idea and we can start to better communicate, generally, what we can expect out of this event, and better communicate the way forward.
“Once we have a grasp of exactly when we can call it safe, we’ll definitely be thoroughly educating people on our re-entry plan, and safe re-entry, and hazard and risk mitigation.”
Residents of Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta, will most likely follow Fort Smith’s re-entry plan, McNab said, as there are currently no other specified plans for the community of about eight people.
He reminded people not to return early, saying those who do so have a negative impact on firefighting efforts as things have to slow down or stop to make sure those people are safe.