Forest and sky are overtaken with flames and smoke in early May 2023, during a wildfire near Lodgepole and Brazeau Dam in west central Alberta.Photo courtesy Alberta Ministry of Forestry and Parks

Innovations that prepare Alberta to attack wildfires sooner, more efficiently and more effectively are baked into an updated approach after last year’s record-breaking season, Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen told The Macleod Gazette.

“Our number one concern is public and community safety when we’re dealing with wildfires,” said Loewen, the UCP member from Central Peace-Notley. Add to that the volume of hectares that burned last year, and a top priority when the season ended was an internal review.

The review pointed the government at better use of technology, equipment upgrades, more fighting fires at night, and the training and rallying of community volunteers to supplement fire crews.  Also important are public education through FireSmart Canada, and the maintenance of reciprocal connections with Canadian and international firefighters, Loewen said.

The province started the wildfire season early this year, which automatically activates fire restrictions in the Alberta Forest Protection Area. And then in Budget 2024 it earmarked money for 100 more wildland firefighters.

But Heather Sweet, the NDP forestry critic, said the budget tabled Feb. 29 by the UCP shows that the party hasn’t learned enough. Neither has it recovered from its own earlier reductions in personnel and spending dating from 2020, she said.

“The government does not want to actually address the issue,” said Sweet, the member for Edmonton-Manning. “They will respond in a time of crisis. But putting any investment into prevention is not on this government’s agenda. And it is a failure, because communities and Albertans deserve better from the government when the indications are that this is going to be a massive wildfire season.”

One way to get more “boots on the ground” is to keep fighting holdover fires after the traditional end to the season, she said. That would recognize that wildfires as a year-round problem, while providing necessary training in situations less complex than those in the rest of the season.

The government also needs to coordinate, plan, educate and communicate better at the community level, she said.

Budget 2024 adds $2 billion to a contingency fund, recognizing $1.5 billion in withdrawals last year during fire season. Said Sweet: “The contingency fund is to respond to a disaster. It does not prevent a disaster.”

Budget documents estimate that Loewen’s ministry will see operating expenses for forests, parks and lands go up $52-million to $351 million in 2024-2025, or 17.4 per cent higher than forecast for 2023-24.

Those numbers don’t start from actual costs in 2023. Expenses for forestry alone last year are estimated at over $1 billion – a 2023-24 budget line more than five times what had been projected.

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency will have spent about $400 million in the final reckoning for 2023-24, almost four times last year’s budget projection.

More than 38,000 people in 48 Alberta communities were displaced by evacuation orders in 2023, published reports say, and on May 6 the province declared a state of emergency that lasted a month.

The Alberta government puts the number of wildfires at around 1,100 for the official season of March 1 to Oct. 31, 2023. Wildfires burned more than 2.2 million hectares of Alberta, or 10 times the five-year average area.

Smoke settled regularly over communities within and beyond the province’s borders, resulting in risk ratings that reached into the “very high” ranking on the Air Quality Health Index.

The severity and proliferation of wildfires meant that 4,038 individuals from Alberta, the rest of Canada and around the world were called upon. Alberta’s total personnel numbered about 1,700 plus 300 contractors. Wildland firefighters that the government employs for ground crews made up about 800 of its total personnel, Loewen said.

With the Feb. 20 declaration of wildfire season this year – 10 days earlier than in 2023 – comes a ban on burning without permits, other than campfires, in the Alberta Forest Protection Area.

More than half the province is included in the protection area, which covers a swath of the north, north-central and west. It surrounds, touches or is nearby Fort McMurray, Peace River, Grande Prairie, Cold Lake, Lac La Biche, Swan Hills, Whitecourt, Edson, Hinton, Grande Cache, Drayton Valley, Rocky Mountain House, Canmore, Crowsnest Pass, Blairmore, dozens of First Nations and hundreds of other communities and municipalities.

A season as bad as last year’s is not a certainty, Loewen said. “The weather has given us the incentive to look at the worst-case scenario, because we don’t have a lot of snow and temperatures have been warm. But realistically, if we had a couple timely rains, that could change.”

Sweet said climate change is leading to a new normal that the government needs to accept. Signs aren’t good for this year’s fire season, she said.

The province is already in a severe drought, she said, with municipalities and agricultural producers being told to restrict water use and change their water licensing agreements. Yet the province is not properly funding or preparing for wildfires. “I think it’s time for the government to recognize that climate change is real,” said Sweet.

Capital investments – the purchase of hard assets like machines and equipment – are in the plans for 2024-2025. To support wildfire fighting, $55 million will go towards facilities and equipment including a fleet of air tankers. The government has also begun the process of replacing its air tanker fleet completely with one that “can better address the province’s current and emerging needs,” Budget 2024 documents said.

And $151 million over three years is planned for enhancements to the Wildfire Management Program, which will improve response readiness and night operations, support volunteer and community response programs, and provide more airtanker support and other resources.

The province will also harness the power of “good, hard-working people” who want to volunteer to fight wildfires, Loewen said. Albertans sometimes see their regular lives shut down during a wildfire, but now they can take a short training course and a physical test and be ready to join the battle.

“These people were standing around and willing to help, but we didn’t have a process to bring them on in a safe way,” said Loewen.

Sweet said that “one of our biggest strengths in Alberta is that everybody wants to step up in times of crisis.” But mobilizing and training crews of volunteers is a complex proposition with costs and risks.

Volunteers need to understand the complexity of wildfires and have the proper personal protection equipment, she said. She doesn’t think short courses will be enough to keep them safe.

There’s an individual responsibility component, too, Loewen says, and Albertans need to act responsibly. The province estimates that 61 per cent of 2023’s wildfires were human-caused. Lightning caused 35 per cent, and as of Nov. 30 four per cent were under investigation.

Sweet, like Loewen, supports public education about individuals doing their part to protect themselves and their property. Cleaning up burnable clutter and building fire berms is “a great strategy and part of the conversation for sure,” said Sweet.

But also needed are more and better communication about things like evacuation routes, what to pack and why evacuation orders must be followed. “There has been no public awareness campaign nor strategy to ensure that Albertans know, in the time of an evacuation, where to get information, where to go and how to do it safely,” Sweet said.

By George Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 10, 2024 at 07:04

This item reprinted with permission from   Fort Macleod Gazette   Fort Macleod, Alberta

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