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Drying conditions return in Alberta, crews see more intense fire activity

A burnt metal sign hangs from a tree, damaged by recent wildfires, in Drayton Valley Alta., on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. As more wildfire evacuees are being allowed to return home in Alberta, provincial officials warn that warm, dry conditions are returning this weekend in some areas.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

As more wildfire evacuees are being allowed to return home in Alberta, provincial officials warn that warm, dry conditions are returning this weekend in some areas.

Melissa Story with Alberta Wildfire says the elevated fire conditions were anticipated and that crews on the ground are seeing more intense fire activity on the perimeters of wildfires.

But she says most fires haven't grown substantially and she doesn't believe any have jumped their containment lines.

The number of evacuees as of Saturday afternoon stood at 5,257, down from over 7,200 on Wednesday, following cooler and wetter conditions in the last week.

Nearly 50 wildfires in Alberta's forest protection area are burning, with 14 of those listed as out-of-control.

Cyndee Evans, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, says the situation remains serious despite recent positive news.

"While we can take heart that more Albertans are starting to return home, we cannot afford to drop our guard. Now is not the time for complacency. Please continue to do your part and help prevent the spread of wildfires and further damage from occurring," Evans told a news conference Saturday.

Story noted that showers were forecast for some parts of Alberta later Saturday, reducing fire danger, but also cautioned they bring the risk of lightning. 

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said in a tweet Saturday that an extension for the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces personnel to assist in firefighting efforts has been approved.

Story said firefighters from New Zealand were welcomed to the province Friday and that nearly 200 firefighters and support staff from Australia would be arriving this weekend.

Alberta remains under a provincewide state of emergency, although some bans on fires, ATVs and off-highway vehicles have been relaxed in recent days.

Parkland County west of Edmonton lifted a state of local emergency on Friday that had been in place since April 29, and downgraded a fire ban to a fire restriction. It said that meant "safe fires in approved fire pits with a screen are allowed and do not require a permit."

Fires without screens still required permits, however, and open fires in the county are still banned.

The High Level Forest Area wildfire update noted the Pasqua fire located in the community of Fox Lake saw an increase in fire activity after warm and dry weather on Friday, and that temperatures and fire behaviour was expected to pick up on Saturday.

Fox Lake remains evacuated, but residents are being permitted to sign up for tours of the community on Monday to view damage. A statement from the Little Red River Cree Nation said priority will be given to people who have lost their homes.

"Tours will be visual only, as it is still not safe for members to walk around the community or house sites due to hot spots as well as possible toxins and hazards in the areas that have been burned," said a statement posted online by the First Nation on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2023.

The Canadian Press

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