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By Nia Williams

Alberta wildfires test Premier Smith's crisis management skills ahead of election

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters search for hotspots by gridline at the Deep Creek Wildfire Complex near Evansburg, Alberta, Canada May 8, 2023. Alberta Wildfire/Handout via REUTERS

An intense start to wildfire season in Canada's main oil province Alberta has put Premier Danielle Smith's disaster management skills - as well as her party's policies - under the microscope ahead of the provincial election on May 29.

The election in the traditionally conservative province is expected to be a tight two-horse race and will have a significant bearing on Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's climate policies, which Smith largely opposes. Skillful handling of the wildfires could boost Smith's popularity and help her United Conservative Party (UCP) clinch victory over the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Rachel Notley, experts said.

FILE PHOTO: Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks during the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada March 23, 2023. REUTERS/Lars Hagberg

Nearly 30,000 Albertans evacuated their homes and oil and gas firms shuttered production as more than 100 wildfires ignited across the province in the last week. By Wednesday, a couple of days of cooler weather gave firefighters some reprieve, but forecasts showed temperatures - and the wildfire risk - surging higher over the weekend.

The widespread blazes are showing Albertans how Smith, who became premier in October, operates in an emergency. So far, political commentators say, she is acquitting herself well.

"This places her in a position to rise above the level of political mudslinging that has occurred prior to and during the election period and really appeal as a leader responding to a crisis on a provincial scale," said Jim Billington, associate principal at polling firm Navigator Ltd.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from a wildfire in Strathcona County, Alberta, Canada May 5, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Twitter @hellohildy/via REUTERS

Smith's rival Notley was Alberta premier during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, which forced 88,000 people to flee in one of Canada's largest-ever evacuations, and destroyed 20% of homes in the oil sands hub.

The NDP leader has experience dealing with wildfire evacuations, but needs to be careful not to nitpick over the UCP's response as neither party leader wants to be seen to be playing politics with an ongoing disaster, said Duane Bratt, political science professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University.


In the four weeks leading up to an election Alberta governments typically enter caretaker mode, with civil servants handling the day-to-day business as the premier and their party focus on campaigning.

Instead, Smith is at the forefront of wildfire response efforts. She declared a provincial state of emergency, sought assistance from the federal government, and announced financial aid to evacuees.

Smith met with Notley over the weekend to discuss the wildfires and on Monday spoke with Trudeau, a frequent political foe, in what she described as a "very productive" call.

Sarah Biggs, a partner at public affairs firm Olsen + Biggs, said Smith's collaborative approach to working with Trudeau and Notley showed she was able to put partisan concerns aside to deal with the crisis.

Aside from attending a party fundraiser in Calgary on Saturday evening, the premier has paused her own election campaigning to focus on the wildfire response.

A number of other UCP and NDP candidates in wildfire-affected areas have also suspended their campaigns.

A May 4 survey from polling firm Leger shows Notley's NDP marginally ahead with 45% of the vote, versus 43% for Smith's UCP. However, 36% of Albertans believe Notley would make the best premier, versus only 26% who favor Smith.

Smith has been embroiled in a string of controversies since becoming premier. Earlier this week she apologised after a 2021 video appeared in which she compared vaccinated Albertans with Nazis in Hitler's Germany.

Political science professor Bratt said the wildfires offered an opportunity for Smith to shine, but also carried risks.

"If there are still 25,000 people under evacuation on May 29, even though it's out of Smith's control, will she be blamed because she's the person in charge?" he said.

(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Denny Thomas and Jonathan Oatis)

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