"Canadian prairie firefighters battle smoke and wind", Reuters, April 7, 1998
EDMONTON, Alberta - Fire fighters battled wildfires that have swept across the Canadian prairie province of Alberta, devastating grass and timberland and forcing hundreds from their homes, officials said on Wednesday.
The flames left a blanket of acrid smoke over much of Alberta, but stopped short of a key electrical line that supplies power to the province's northern reaches, according forestry authorities.
Seven of the province's 27 fires were reported out of control, but the winds that had driven the flames were lighter on Wednesday and were expected to change direction - making it easier to control the blazes.
"I would say we're getting a handle on things (but) these fires are still out of control, and the wind will play a significant factor in what progress we make," Alberta Forestry Division spokesman Bob Young told reporters.
"The long range forecast ... is Saturday or Sunday they're calling for rain, so we're cautiously optimistic about that."
Canada's western prairies and woodlands have been left with tinderbox conditions by a dryer than normal winter and mild spring - a situation blamed in part on El Nino.
Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario have also had fires in recent days but northern Alberta has been the hardest hit.
No injuries have been reported from the Alberta blazes, but hundreds of people remained out of their homes - including nearly all of the 2,500 residents of Swan Hills, who were forced to flee early on Tuesday.
Firefighting crews from the United States, Quebec and British Columbia arrived early on Wednesday, bringing the army fighting the wildfires to more than 700 people. Aircraft are also being used.
An estimated 360,000 acres of grass and timberland have been burned, although officials said they expect to get a more accurate picture of the damage when a specially-equipped aircraft arrives from the U.S.
Authorities said they got a break when the flames stopped short of a key substation on the electrical line to northern Alberta. Flames burned under the power wires but caused no damage.
"You can imagine what problems that would have caused," Young said.
He said the officials also received good news when they discovered that a major sawmill in High Prairie engulfed by flames on Tuesday suffered less damage than originally feared. "It looked like it was a gonner," Younge said.
(C) Reuers Limited 1998.