Alberta to add firefighters for the expected wildfire season

Minister Todd Loewen acknowledged that climate change, which increases fuel availability and lengthens the fire season, is changing the rules under which wildfires have been fought.

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Alberta will deploy more firefighters, more volunteers and more high-tech equipment as it prepares for what is expected to be another intense wildfire season, the province’s forestry minister said Thursday.

And as the province faces a summer of possibly severe drought, Todd Loewen said the future looks like more of the same as Alberta dries and warms.

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“We’ve had other years like this with very little snow,” he said in an interview. “We have had other winters with an exceptional amount of snow.

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“But I think we can agree that it is becoming more common to have warmer, drier years everywhere.”

Last year there was a record number of forest fires in the province. Before the season officially ended in October, Alberta had faced 1,088 wildfires that burned 2.2 million hectares from north to south.

The province is still battling 54 “carryover” fires from last year, which lay smoldering under this year’s low snowfall until they flared up again.

The United Conservative government faced criticism for being unprepared for that conflagration, which Loewen is eager to prevent this year.

“We are preparing for the worst,” he said.

More fighters and volunteers are expected

Loewen did not give a figure on how many more firefighters will be hired until the budget is presented, but said the province has already had a record number of applications.

There will also be greater use of volunteers from the local community, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of communities (Indigenous communities and others) that wanted to help but we didn’t have a system for them.”

It will take some training and “a little physical test,” Loewen said.

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“That doesn’t mean we put them in front of a wall of furious fire. But there is a lot of work that can be done on both sides.”

Todd Loewen
Minister of Forestry and Parks, Todd Loewen. Postmedia photo, archive

There will be a tougher stance on man-made fires, the source of around 60 per cent of wildfires.

“The most important thing is the campfires,” Loewen said. “We’ll be a little more aggressive with fire bans.”

It has already announced that the province will use new equipment, such as helicopters equipped with night vision, to allow them to work in the dark when the flames are less violent. The crews will also have equipment that will allow them to work at night.

RMA president wants more community-based teams

Paul McLauchlin, president of Alberta Rural Municipalities, said he supports training local volunteers to help professional firefighters defend threatened communities. Wildland firefighters are not mandated to protect homes and buildings, McLauchlin said.

“I fully support it,” he said. “There are skills that are required to understand how to safely fight a fire and (know) when it’s time to evacuate.”

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But McLauchlin said his group would still like to see more equipment and crews located in communities outside the province’s forest belt. With the cancellation of helicopter rappel teams in 2019, rapid mobilization of firefighters to threatened communities will be even more important, he said.

“Crew mobilization was quite important (last year),” he said. “Our members also want to offer their buildings to firefighting teams in different parts (of the province) for mobilization.”

Loewen said there are no plans to change where firefighters are located.

Minister recognizes impacts of climate change

Loewen acknowledged that climate change, which increases fuel availability and lengthens the fire season, is changing the rules under which wildfires have been fought. Proactive measures will need to be taken, such as more fire guards around communities.

Forestry practices will have to change, especially around ancient forests.

“Collecting ancient trees is really beneficial for fighting forest fires,” says Loewen. “When a fire hits an area that has been previously harvested, the fire stops or is greatly attenuated.”

That may not mean more cutting down of old trees. It may mean cutting differently.

“We want to make sure we can harvest in areas where there is a higher risk and (harvest) in patterns that reduce wildfire growth,” Loewen said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024.

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