A shift in weather conditions brought much-needed relief to firefighters in Western Canada, where around 964,000 acres have burned since wildfires started more than a week ago, destroying dozens of structures and forcing nearly 30,000 residents of Alberta to evacuate.
Cooler temperatures and light, scattered showers allowed firefighters to reach wildfires over the weekend that they had not been able to access “because of extreme wildfire behavior,” Christie Tucker, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire, a firefighting agency, said at a news conference on Sunday.
Officials expect the weather to continue to work in their favor over the next few days, with cooler temperatures in the forecast as well as higher humidity in southern and central Alberta. But in the north, firefighters “will continue to be challenged” with dry conditions, Ms. Tucker said.
“People have called this season certainly unprecedented in recent memory because we have so many fires so spread out,” Ms. Tucker said. “It’s been an unusual year.”
Alberta declared a state of emergency on Saturday as more than 110 wildfires burned across the province. That number had dwindled, but only slightly, by Monday afternoon, when there were 98 active wildfires in the province. Parts of Yellowhead, Big Lakes and Lac Ste. Anne Counties were still under evacuation orders on Monday.
Ms. Tucker said that firefighters arrived in Alberta on Sunday from Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia to assist in fighting the wildfires. Firefighters in Alberta are prioritizing threatened communities and the threat of loss of life, she said, including the fires in Edson, Grizzly Complex, Deep Creek Complex and Fox Lake.
About 5,000 people have gone through evacuation centers, Colin Blair, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said at the news conference on Sunday. While some are beginning to return home, others will have to continue to wait.
Darryel Sowan, a spokesman for the Little Red River Cree Nation, said on Monday that more than 3,700 people had been evacuated over the weekend from the Fox Lake community — the most isolated area in the Little Red River’s territory but also where a majority of the population lives. No one was hurt but the community lost at least 44 structures, Mr. Sowan said.
For many nation members, it was the first time they had left Fox Lake in their entire lives, Mr. Sowan said.
“They want to go home,” he said, but “because of the ongoing situation on the ground, they’re not allowed in there until it’s contained.”
Mr. Sowan was in John D’Or Prairie, west of the nation’s three communities, where some members had been evacuated to a gymnasium and were sleeping on mats on the floor.
“They’re doing their best,” he said, noting the smoke in the air. “It’s heartbreaking for the entire community.”
Evacuation orders were also issued for parts of British Columbia over the weekend in the Peace River Regional District. The order was downgraded to an alert by Sunday night.
“The wildfire situation remains volatile, and it is critical to stay out of the evacuated areas to avoid putting lives at risk or disrupting the fire response,” Leonard Hiebert, chairman of the Peace River Regional District, said in a statement on Sunday night.
Kevin Zahara, the mayor of Edson, a town in Yellowhead County, said “a steady stream” of evacuees began to return home on Monday morning under clear skies and a faint hint of smoke. About 8,400 people had evacuated the town, among 14,000 residents who left the county under threat of fire.
“Things are looking really good, the weather is cooperating,” he said. “It’s certainly positive and we are looking forward to getting back to normal and past this emergency.”
Mr. Zahara said there was no damage to the town itself, but there was structural damage, including the loss of a natural gas plant, on the eastern side of the county and outside the town’s boundaries. The wildfires have also forced some of Alberta’s largest oil producers to temporarily shut in some of their wells.