CALGARY- Alberta declared a state of emergency Saturday due to the growing threat of wildfires that have forced more than 24,000 people from their homes.
Premier Danielle Smith said the safety of Albertans is a priority, and the emergency status gives the government greater power to access emergency funds and mobilize additional support.
“This is not a step that we took lightly,” Smith told a news conference following a meeting of her emergency management cabinet committee. “But it’s one that will allow the quickest and most effective response.”
More than a dozen communities and rural areas have been evacuated in recent days. Officials said there were 110 wildfires burning in the province, with about three dozen considered out of control, as of late Saturday afternoon.
Some buildings have been destroyed, including 20 homes, a police station and a store in Fox Lake in northern Alberta.
The Municipality of Jasper in Jasper National Park also warned that wildfires burning in Yellowhead County could cause a power failure in the town.
Smith said provincial money will be available to help those affected and that Ottawa is ready to help. She said Alberta Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis had spoken with federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and Ottawa is on standby to provide assistance if the province requests it.
“I’m hoping to be able to schedule a call with the prime minister in the next day or so and I’m building a list of things that we’ll be able to ask for. I’ll take them seriously when they say that they’re prepared to give help,” Smith said, while also praising the City of Edmonton for providing an evacuation centre on short notice.
Smith said the province could ask the prime minister for firefighting expertise from national parks, as well as military help. Ottawa would also have to help with the emergency response for First Nations, she said.
Temperatures remained high, humidity stayed low and forecasts continued to call for gusting winds.
But there was a ray of hope.
“We are looking forward to a brief reprieve, possibly in the next few days, as cooler weather comes up through the province, that may give firefighters a chance to catch their breath,” said Christie Tucker, an information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire.
Tucker added that Alberta had welcomed additional firefighters Saturday from Ontario and Quebec.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she had extended an offer to the United Conservative Party government to take part in meetings about the wildfire response.
Alberta is currently in the middle of an election campaign, with the vote scheduled for May 29.
“I’m willing to provide any insights from past experiences that might be helpful in this situation,” Notley said.
Notley was premier during the May 2016 wildfires that forced tens of thousands of people from Fort McMurray, Alta., and levelled many parts of the city.
“It’s very rare that you have a former premier running in a campaign. It’s even more rare that that former premier has experience with this kind of public emergency,” said Notley.
“There is an opportunity for us to depoliticize this and to work together on doing everything we can to focus on public safety, ensure the resources are corralled appropriately to the people who need it and make sure it’s not an election issue. And one way to do that is to bring people together.”
Smith said the government is ensuring the leader of the Opposition receives information as the fire situation continues to unfold. She said she’ll be meeting with Notley in the coming days and looks “forward to getting her advice on how she would like to be able to feed into our process.”
The premier also said she had spoken with Elections Alberta for advice and, if it’s required by the end of the month, accommodations for voting could be made for affected areas.
“As of now, people should be anticipating that election day will go ahead as planned on May 29,” Smith said.
Notley said it’s too soon to say whether the election should be delayed. NDP candidates in six constituencies affected by evacuation orders suspended their campaigns Saturday.
Smith said two UCP candidates had also stepped away from campaigning.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2023.