As of March 1, fire season is officially underway in the Alberta. But rural municipalities say they’re still waiting on millions in provincial support payments to help cover costs incurred responding to 2023’s disastrous wildfires. 

In total, last year’s wildfires cost rural municipalities an estimated $78.5 million, according to a survey conducted by the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA). Communities surveyed said they had requested more than $60 million in provincial support through the Disaster Recovery Program, which provides financial assistance for uninsured losses caused by emergencies and natural disasters. Nearly half of respondents had yet to receive any of the funds requested, and none had received the full amount.

Because municipal governments can’t run deficits, the emergency expenses largely are drawn from financial reserves, said RMA president Paul McLauchlin. Delays in repayment from the DRP can cause future cash flow issues, or mean funds have to be diverted from other areas of the budget.

The average amount incurred in damages or recovery efforts by rural municipalities that responded to the survey was $2.7 million.

“That’s quite a bit of money that really is not available to municipalities for all the other goods and services we provide the folks in rural Alberta,” McLauchlin said.

“Because we’re talking about some fairly large numbers, I have the expectation that a majority of municipalities likely had to go and draw down their reserves. And those reserves actually aren’t intended for forest fires. Those are ultimately intended to provide capital replacement in our municipalities.”

Fears of increasing wildfires and compounding costs

It can sometimes take up to two or three years for municipalities to be reimbursed through Alberta’s disaster recovery program, and there is no guarantee those costs will be fully covered. As climate change makes wildfires more frequent and intense, McLauchlin said he worries municipalities won’t be able to handle the financial burden if they are hit with back-to-back disasters.

“We can’t predict the future. But if you did have a situation where you had three years like this in a row, if the payment is not quick, that would be such an extreme financial burden that I expect some municipalities may not have the resources available, considering the numbers that we’re talking about,” he said.

To date, $23.1 million has been disbursed to communities through the 2023 Wildfire Disaster Recovery Program, and the government is committed to making sure communities are reimbursed for eligible costs, said Arthur Green, press secretary for Alberta’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services. 

“Assessing claims is an ongoing process, and we aim to process submissions as quickly as possible. Some claims take longer to process if more information is required from communities. Communities have a dedicated case manager assigned to their file and are available to answer questions on the status of their application,” Green said.

“The Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) is working with local authorities and our cross-ministry partners to get ready for the upcoming fire season and ensure a well-coordinated and efficient response. AEMA is coordinating a third-party review of the 2023 wildfire response efforts to identify potential improvements to the emergency management system.”

An entirely fixable problem

McLauchlin said the purpose of RMA’s report isn’t to be critical, but to be a learning exercise and to work toward needed policy changes.

“I think this is entirely fixable,” he said. “Our purpose is to bring this to the attention of government, look for ways to streamline it, eliminate red tape, and create certainty in the system.”

A major reason for the delays in disaster recovery payments to municipalities, McLauchlin said, is that “funding becomes part the federal-provincial blame game with one another.” While governments argue over who is responsible for what costs, the money “gets tied up in the bureaucracy of that relationship. And then just gets tied up in the bureaucracy with the provincial government.”

“We want to create surety in the system,” McLaughlin said. “In emergency response situations, you don’t want to be sitting there making budget decisions. You want to make response decisions.”

By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 28, 2024 at 11:10

This item reprinted with permission from   St. Albert Gazette   St. Albert, Alberta

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