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Alberta cannot afford to gamble on forest fires

It’s time for this government to listen. We simply cannot afford another crisis

May 14, 2020

It’s time for government to listen. We cannot afford another crisis

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Don’t play with fire.

It is astonishing that we need to say this out loud. However, that’s where we find ourselves today, as Albertans brace for another annual wildfire season.

“Albertans are already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, from the unprecedented collapse in oil prices and from flooding in Fort McMurray. Our government should not be gambling that this year we’ll be spared devastating forest fires,” says Mike Dempsey, vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents more than 95,000 workers, including those who fight wildfires.

The Alberta government has scrapped the vital Forest Firefighter Rappel program. This employed 63 specially trained firefighters to provide an initial attack on fires when they start. Cutting the rappel program meant laying off 13 per cent of Alberta’s initial attack capacity.

“Flown by helicopter to otherwise inaccessible areas, these firefighters rappel down to the fire sites to bring blazes under control quickly, before they spread and threaten communities,” says Dempsey.

“The government claimed this was a cost-savings measure, but it will result in much higher costs in the long run. Preventing small fires from spreading is much cheaper than attempting to fight full-scale blazes.”

The government said that an alternative Human External Cargo helicopter program could replace the rappel program, but Transport Canada says this is not as safe or reliable.

In its recent budget, the government cut total wildfire management spending by $13.4 million or 12.9 per cent. It has been reported that the cuts mean that up to 30 of the wildfire watchtowers will not be staffed, meaning early detection of fires will be more difficult.

Recently, the government tried to backtrack on some cuts by announcing it was hiring 200 more ground firefighters. While more firefighters is good, this will do nothing to support the initial attack capacity. Meanwhile, experienced firefighters report that the government is struggling to recruit and train these new crews.

On May 14, 2011, Slave Lake was devastated by a forest fire. Four years ago, on May 1, the Fort McMurray forest fire began. It destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings and with estimated damage of $9.9 billion, it became the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

“Experts are telling us that climate change is causing more frequent and more severe forest fires. Our front-line firefighters are telling us that these cuts are a bad idea and will put Albertans at risk,” says Dempsey.

“It’s time for this government to listen. We simply cannot afford another crisis.”

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