Rancher BJ Fuchs hasn’t been able to let his guard down as wildfires advance in the Canadian province of Alberta, so far sparing his Shining Bank farm but scorching forests and pastures all around it.
Pastures that usually contain up to 1,000 cows sit empty and a haze of smoke reduces visibility to less than five meters (16 ft).
Fox and his son manage to evacuate his flock before a wildfire jumps a nearby river and reaches his doorstep. Smoke now billows from the burning piles of trees on his wooded lot west of the regional capital, Edmonton.
He told AFP that the fire that threatened his farm was strong. “It’s very scary things when a fire is so close to your house.”
“There are still hot spots, you know, I don’t think we’re out of danger yet,” he said, sporting a days-old beard and cowboy hat. “So I don’t think we can let our guard down.”
Alberta is the largest cattle-producing region in Canada, with nearly five million head of cattle, according to government data.
Dotted with open ranges and rolling plains in the shadow of the majestic Rocky Mountains, it has been used as a backdrop for Westerns such as Academy Award winners Unforgiven and Brokeback Mountain.
Over the past week, bushfires have burned more than 400,000 hectares (1,550 square miles), and forced nearly 30,000 people from their homes. About 70 fires were still raging as of Friday, 20 of which were out of control.
“It will be a constant battle, in my opinion,” said Fox while he was busy trampling his property, “until there is much more rain, that is for sure.”
Fox and his neighbors are despondent about the hot, dry weather that fueled the wildfires, just two years after a major drought caused crop yields in western Canada to drop by as much as 40 percent.
“It’s actually hundreds of thousands of animals that are likely to be affected because the (burned) area is so huge,” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith told a news conference.
Hosing barns and other farm buildings, erecting fire screens, and clearing dry weeds, farmers and ranchers work hard.
“I was desperate, wondering when it would end,” said Jessie Crowther, 37, who runs a small cattle ranch. “There is always something—drought, cold, heavy rain—you take what comes and keep going.”
He said the latest fire disaster – which authorities suspect was started by a combination of lightning strikes and human negligence – was “crazy”.
In recent years, western Canada has been repeatedly hit by extreme weather events, the intensity and frequency of which have increased due to global warming.
Wildfires in the Canadian oil sands region in 2016 disrupted production and forced 100,000 residents to leave Fort McMurray, devastating the country’s economy.
As recently as 2021, Columbia’s westernmost province of British Columbia – neighboring Alberta – experienced record high summer temperatures that killed more than 500 people, as well as wildfires that destroyed an entire city, floods and mudslides.
Over the past week, Alberta ranchers have scrambled to secure transportation to move cattle to fairgrounds and other locations that have opened emergency quarters for displaced livestock.
Farmer Trent Stanley said, “Anyone who lives here is prepared all the time, because if your house catches fire, the local fire department, you know, are volunteer guys who’ll take half an hour to get to the station and then another half hour to get here (and) by the time it happens So, your house is finished.”
But with regard to livestock, the situation is more difficult – even dire. “I have 850 cows giving birth,” he said. “It’s not like you can load them up in a few minutes.”
“I think the plan was to just open the gates and maybe the cattle would know how to run, but I doubt that.”
© 2023 AFP
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