Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen announced $151 million into the provinces wildfire response over three years at the Grande Prairie Forest Area warehouse in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Friday, March 1, 2024. The funding includes hiring 100 additional firefighters, adding two additional air tankers, and adding pilot program initiatives from last year permanently. (Photo by Jesse Boily)Jesse Boily

Drones and artificial intelligence may play a role in the province’s additional $151 million investment into its wildfire response. 

Announced by the Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen in Grande Prairie on Friday (March 1), the funding will span three years.  

“The first priority of Alberta’s government is to do all we can to be ready for this year’s wildfire season,” he said.

The budget is a $55 million increase from last year’s wildfire budget. 

Loewen said the 2023 budget for Alberta Wildfire was about $100.4 million and this year will be $155.4 million.

The province is making some of its piloted programs from last year permanent fixtures, he said.

“We are increasing our night vision helicopter capacity to three contracts, which includes two medium helicopters and one heavy helicopter. 

“These aircraft are equipped with night vision imaging systems, allowing us to better gauge the size and scope of fires to improve tactics and respond faster to wildfires across the province.” 

The 2024 budget includes $55 million in capital funding for new wildfire fighting equipment and facilities, such as sprinkler trailers and weather stations, and to upgrade existing air tankers.

Air tankers will increase from eight to 10 while the province will renew 130 charter helicopter contracts.

“Budget funding also enables Alberta Wildfire to continue using high-tech drones to support wildfire management operations,” said Loewen. 

“Drones deliver real-time information about fires, which helps us know where to send wildland firefighters to curb the flames.”

He noted drones could also fly over areas deemed too dangerous for crewed aircraft and help collect valuable data when fighting wildfires.

Loewen said Alberta Wildfire uses artificial intelligence tools that assist wildfire managers in making strategic decisions and determining the probability of a wildfire starting in a given area.

“This technology will continue to be important to our firefighting efforts this year, providing decision-makers with an additional source of information to consider as they allocate resources such as wildland firefighters, helicopters and heavy equipment to where they will be needed most.”

Last month, Loewen announced Alberta Wildfire would be hiring an additional 100 firefighters, which is included in the budget.

Loewen was not specific about where additional resources would be going but said considerations are being made regarding where personnel and equipment will be most needed. 

“If this region is deemed to be the most in need, that’s where the resources will go,” he said.

Loewen said previously cancelled programs, such as the Alberta Wildfire Rappel program, will not return under the new funding. The rappel program was a unit of specialized firefighters who rappeled from helicopters to access remote wildfires quickly, but it was cancelled by the province in 2019.

Loewen says the decision comes down to cost and how the countryside has changed over the last 30 years. He said the cost of one rappel crew was equal to two or three helicopter crews, which dropped crews off on the ground versus those rappelling down.

When asked if any additional resources would be coming to local fire crews who also helped during the wildfires, he said it was the responsibility of local municipalities to ensure proper funding was there. 

“I want to reassure Albertans that we are prepared for the worst while hoping for the best in the wildfire season ahead,” said Loewen.

“Indications are that we could have a tough season based on the snowfall and rain and the weather conditions we’ve had through this winter, but it would only take a couple of nice snowstorms like we had last weekend and a few nice rains in the spring that could make all the difference in the world.” 

Loewen announced Feb. 20 as the start of wildfire season, 10 days earlier than usual.

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 07, 2024 at 09:10

This item reprinted with permission from   Town & Country News   Beaverlodge, Alberta

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