A helicopter with a bucket flies over the Fort Smith area on September 11, 2023. Photo: Parks Canada
A large wildfire complex outside Fort Smith has been downgraded from out of control to being held, a significant shift in a months-long battle.
The fires have now burned more than a half a million hectares of land inside and outside Wood Buffalo National Park, a huge footprint even by northern standards. Areas of the park have been on fire since May.
The complex was the primary set of wildfires responsible for the evacuation of Fort Smith in mid-August, and hundreds upon hundreds of firefighters have rotated in and out of the community and national park in an effort to protect the town and other nearby communities.
“Being held means that the fire is not likely to spread beyond existent or predetermined boundaries under prevailing and forecast weather and fire behaviour conditions,” Parks Canada stated on Wednesday.
“While the wildfire remains active, firefighting efforts and a cooler forecast have effectively prevented any significant wildfire spread over the last few days.”
The downgraded status does not mean work on the fire stops or even necessarily scales back. More than 180 people, 17 pieces of heavy equipment and 11 helicopters were still assigned to the complex as of Wednesday, Parks Canada said.
In its last update, the town said it remains on evacuation alert. A fire ban remains in place.
Most Fort Smith residents spent more than a month away from their homes.
An evacuation triggered on August 12 sent thousands of people toward expected safety in Hay River, only for that town to come under an evacuation order of its own because of a separate fire a day later.
As a result, the majority of Fort Smith residents stayed in Alberta until the evacuation order lifted on September 18, 37 days after it was issued.