As Canada grapples with what some experts are calling one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent history, with millions of hectares already having been burned, there are questions about whether prescribed fires, which are planned and controlled and meant to remove fuels that could contribute to wildfires, should be done more often.

Locally, the City of Airdrie does not use prescribed fires as a method of wildfire and grassfire prevention. Deputy Chief of Fire Prevention and Public Education, James Kostuk, explained that this decision is based on a risk vs. reward system.

"Within the city of Airdrie, [grass] is predominantly our risk and we're able to control a lot of that risk through engineering, such as creating pathways adjacent to residential properties, having good planning, having space requirements," Deputy Chief Kostuk explained. "[As well as] mowing some of those grass areas."

In other localities, such as Rocky View County, prescribed burns are also not generally part of the Forest and Prairie Protection Act. According to Rocky View County Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Management, Ken Hubbard, isolated burns within the County are permitted for vegetation management as a last resort.

In a written statement, Chief Hubbard wrote that RVC will continue to plan and address risks as part of their “all Hazards approach” to public safety.

"[Including] the need for timely communication of risks to the community and residents, and provide education and tools to be prepared, what residents should do, should an evacuation be required for communities and hamlets within the County (evacuation preparedness, 72-hour preparedness, people, pets and livestock)."

The province of Alberta lists that there are currently two prescribed fires in the province - one is being planned in the Ribbon Creek drainage area in Kananaskis Country, while the other may be occurring near Pelican Mountain, in Northern Alberta. Parks Canada, on its website, lists at least two dozen prescribed burns that have occurred in the past year or so, or are being planned currently. Some prescribed burns in the National Parks area were already being planned at least a decade prior.

Nationally, according to recent statistics from the National Wildland Fire Situation Report, there are 12 prescribed fires nationwide. In comparison, in 2021 during the same time period, there were 30 prescribed fires. 

However, Tanya Letcher, a prescribed fire coordinator with Wildfire Alberta said that in order for a prescribed fire to actually go ahead, a multitude of factors have to align. For her, there are two key words that she always has in the back of her mind: planned and controlled. She noted that a prescribed burn can take up to two years of planning. 

"We're just not dropping fire on the landscape without a reason; you determine what your objectives are and those objectives are usually tied to a plot of land. Once you decide what it is you want, then you've got to determine how do I best meet those objectives using fire?" she said. "Once you decide where you're going to burn, then you've got to consider, how do I keep the fire in the box? What resources do I need? What equipment do I need?"

Pointing to the Ribbon Creek Fire, Letcher said that preparations for this prescribed fire were already happening in the spring when there was still snow on the ground and fire guards were being put in. 

When asked if the province has increased their prescribed fire plans to mitigate future wildfires, especially while observing this year's wildfire season, Letcher said that it's not a matter of ramping up prescribed burns, but it is more a matter of finding the perfect timing in which to execute them. Weather conditions have to be exactly right, and so do the fuel conditions. 

"The other competing factor is how early the wildfire season starts. This year, we saw fires at the end of March, which is typically when our prescribed [spring] goes. So, there are those are probably the two limiting factors."

Letcher underlined that if a prescribed burn window is not achieved, they do not abandon the plan, always looking to see if there is another possibility to commence the burn. But what happens if a prescribed fire is met with unexpected extreme weather?

"We usually designate [a] containment area for the catchment [and] the containment areas are areas you don't want to burn, but fire is acceptable in that containment area. But, if we've lit the fire, and some unexpected weather event or a piece of critical equipment is not operational, and that causes a disruption in the operations," Letcher explained. "Every prescribed fire plan has what we call a contingency plan and that's where we switch from this being a prescribed fire to a wildfire, and then we treat it as such."

Occurences, such as the one that Letcher described have happened this year. In early May, a prescribed burn near Banff National Park turned out of control due to high winds - that prescribed burn which turned into a wildfire did damage properties in the vicinity. And last week, in the neighbouring province of British Columbia, B.C. Wildfire Services also commenced a prescribed burn in the North Shuswap region - defending their decision amidst criticism that it was poorly timed, considering that the burn ended up merging with the Bush Creek East wildfire. However, officials said that the prescribed burn did in fact contribute to saving properties and homes in the region.

Letcher was cautious about labelling prescribed burns as the best tool in combating wildfires, saying that it is one tool that the province uses.

This year there have been 5,753 wildfires, burning 13,678,162 hectares of land across the country. In Alberta, 983 hectares were burned from wildfires this year, the third-highest amount of hectares burned since 2018. 

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