Alberta will field more firefighters, more volunteers and more high-tech gear as it braces for what it expects will be another busy 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 out and heats up.
“We’ve had other years like this with very little snow,” he said in an interview. “We’ve had other winters with an exceptional amount of snow.
“But I think we can agree it’s becoming more common to have warmer, drier years all around.”
Last year was a record for wildfires in the province. Before the season was officially over in October, Alberta had faced 1,088 wildfires that scorched 2.2 million hectares from north to south.
‘Preparing for the worst’
The province is still fighting 54 “carry-over” fires from last year, which lay smouldering under this year’s meagre snowfall until they burst out again.
The United Conservative government faced criticism for not being ready for that conflagration, which Loewen is anxious to forestall this year.
“We’re preparing for the worst,” he said.
Loewen wouldn’t put a number on how many more firefighters will be hired until the budget is tabled, but said the province has already had a record number of applications.
There will also be more use of local community volunteers, 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.”
Some training and “a little bit of a physical test” will be required, Loewen said.
“That doesn’t mean we put them in front of a raging wall of fire. But there’s a lot of work that can be done along the sides.”
There will be a tougher stance on human-caused fires, the source of about 60 per cent of wildfire ignitions.
“The largest thing is campfires,” Loewen said. “We’ll be a little more aggressive on fire bans.”
He’s already announced the province will field new gear such as helicopters equipped with night vision to enable them to work in the dark when the flames are less violent. Crews will also have equipment to let them work at night.
Paul McLauchlin, president of Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said he is on board with training local volunteers to help professional firefighters defend threatened communities.
Wildfire firefighters don’t have a mandate to protect homes and buildings, McLauchlin said.
“I’m fully supportive of it,” he said. “There’s skills that are required to understand the safe way to fight a fire and [knowing] when it’s time to evacuate.”
But McLauchlin said his group would still like to see more equipment and crews based in communities outside the forested area of the province.
With the cancellation of helicopter rappel teams in 2019, quick mobilization of firefighters to threatened communities will become even more important, he said.
“Mobilization of crews was quite important [last year],” he said. “Our members are also wanting to offer their buildings to firefighting gear in different parts [of the province] for mobilization.”
Loewen said there are no plans to change where firefighters are based.
Loewen acknowledged climate change — which increases fuel availability and lengthens the fire season — is changing the rules under which wildfires have been fought. Proactive measures, such as more fireguards around communities, will have to be adopted.
Forestry practices will have to change, especially around old-growth forest.
“Harvest of the old growth is actually beneficial for forest firefighting,” Loewen said.
“When a fire hits an area that’s been previously harvested, the fire either stops or is greatly subdued.”
That may not mean more old-growth cutting. It may mean cutting differently.
“We do want to make sure we can harvest in areas where there’s a greater risk, and [harvest] in patterns that reduce the growth of wildfire,” said Loewen.