With another bad wildfire season looming, Alberta fire chiefs want proactive strategy from province  

Alberta’s fire chiefs are warning this year’s wildfire season has the potential to resemble last year’s record-breaking and “devastating” situation.

The province saw a total of 1,088 wildfires that burned about 22,000 square kilometres from March 1 to Oct. 31 – 10 times more area than the five-year average.

The previous record for area burned was 1981 with 13,000 square kilometres.

Citing Alberta’s dry winter so far, the province’s fire chiefs are sharing their “significant concern” over the upcoming wildfire season. Unseasonably warm temperatures and low precipitation are raising concerns about drought conditions – elements that could lead to another difficult year for wildfires.

The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association (AFCA) sent a letter to the provincial government Wednesday calling for action.

“These wildfires are occurring with greater frequency, intensity, and duration across more expansive areas than in the past,” the association wrote. “In light of these concerns and environmental projection models the AFCA is urgently calling for disclosure of the provinces’ wildfire preparedness strategy.”

The chiefs say last year’s challenging firefighting season highlighted the “critical need” for a more proactive approach. They say they’ve met with “key ministries” to ask for additional resources, increased training capacity, equipment, and aerials.

They also want a provincial fire services advisory committee to be established “to assist in developing a dedicated provincial strategy to better manage and mitigate the risks associated with wildfire seasons.”

“The AFCA emphasized with government that reliance on municipalities to financially backstop wildland fire response is not sustainable. With or without federal funding, the AFCA is inquiring about the allocation of additional resources towards wildfire management.

“There is a growing concern among Fire Chiefs across the province of the lack of communication of what the plan is, allocation of funds compared to previous years and plan for the recruitment and deployment of firefighters and equipment.”

Record number of applicants for wildland firefighter roles: Loewen

The province says preparations for the 2024 wildfire season have been underway for months.

“We have made a number of improvements to our wildfire prevention, preparedness, response and mitigation efforts, and we are confident in our ability to respond to wildfires across our province,” said Todd Loewen, minister of forestry and parks, in a statement.

Loewen says the province will engage in “enhanced night operations,” such as ground suppression efforts, night-vision helicopters and nighttime helitanking.

“Wildfire behaviour is typically more subdued at night, which will increase the effectiveness of suppression efforts,” the minister said. “We are also working to secure additional aircraft, Firetack crews and heavy equipment operators through other contracts.”

The forestry and parks minister also says Alberta has received a record number of applicants for wildland firefighter positions for the new season.

Loewen adds a community fireguard program was launched, and urged Albertans to familiarize themselves with FireSmart principles.

“We understand the concerns expressed by the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, and value their desire to ensure the safety of Albertans and their communities. We met with them in November to discuss our approach to wildfire management outside of the Forest Protection Area.”

Alberta NDP wants joint wildfire task force

In a statement, Heather Sweet, the Alberta NDP critic for agriculture, forestry and rural economic development, says she is asking for the establishment of a joint wildfire task force made up of provincial, municipal and firefighter union representatives.

“And we called for this task force to begin providing regular updates to Albertans in February, before fire season begins, on the proactive work that is being done to limit the damage and risk of wildfires,” Sweet said. “We also requested a seat on this task force as we are accountable to our constituents and stakeholders.”

Sweet is also calling for emergency training of provincial and municipal firefighters to begin immediately.

“Last year, we were not properly prepared for the wildfires we saw until many were burning out of control. This cannot happen again.”

–With files from The Canadian Press

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