By Alexander Delorme,
Climate change means Alberta is experiencing increasingly destructive wildfire seasons, but just when we should be planning to combat the increased threat the Alberta government has instead taken an axe to resources.
Funding has been cut by 9.1 per cent, the number of wildfire observers in towers has been reduced by 15 full-time positions, and the province’s crack team of 63 rappelling firefighters has been disbanded.
Alberta is world famous for its lush forests and scenic landscapes. However, the people who live in communities in these areas are in grave danger. In its budget last fall, the government made huge cuts to wildfire-fighting services, which it says will save $23 million. But Albertans know gambling on wildfire safety will not save money in the long run.
Cuts to wildfire fighting include reducing the number of AUPE members in lookout towers. These workers are the first line of defence for Albertans, a crucial part of the team that prevents dangerous situations from becoming out-of-control emergencies.
Their job is to spot fires as they begin and alert firefighters. If firefighters get on the scene quickly, they can control or extinguish a blaze before it becomes a threat to homes, communities businesses and lives. Prevention is better – and cheaper – than waiting to tackle an inferno.
Often, the first firefighters to arrive on the scene of a forest blaze are part of the elite Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program, also known as the RAP Program. Or they used to be, until the government decided to scrap this important firefighting tool.
These firefighters would be flown by helicopter to the scene of remote fires in dangerous areas that could not be reached from the ground. They’d rappel down and begin to battle the blaze and clear land so other fire teams could be flown in.
While the government is replacing the RAP Program with a new one called the Human External Cargo (HEC) program, the workers are still being let go and wildfire fighters already on staff are being trained to carry out the new program. They’re being asked to do more with less.
The Alberta government claims it can do the same job through its HEC program, but the firefighters themselves disagree. They’re not alone. Even though the Alberta government sees no value in their work, the B.C. government firefighting system has been quick to try to recruit them.
These cuts have come as a shock to the firefighting community. Many of them work seasonal jobs and some are needed for only a handful of fires every year, but they all sacrifice time away from their families and risk their lives to protect Albertans, their property and communities, the resource sector industry, such as forestry and oil and gas, and our beautiful wilderness.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said AUPE vice-president Mike Dempsey. “Given the horrific wildfires of recent years – Slave Lake, Fort McMurray, High Level and more – why would the government put Albertans at risk?
“Why put all this in danger through budget cuts while at the same time giving away $4.7 billion in tax breaks to rich corporations? The government needs to do the right thing. It needs to stop the giveaways and use that money to invest in the programs and services that keep Albertans safe.”
Any money the government thinks it can save by making cuts to firefighting is a gamble that may come back to haunt us when this reduction to public services leads to more dangerous, more out-of-control and more expensive wildfires.
More than 700 wildfires burn in Alberta every year. Most of them are manageable, but it only takes one getting out of control to cause a disaster. Albertans know this all too well.
In an era of increasing weather-related disasters, Albertans will be facing even more wildfires. This is the time to invest in disaster prevention and detection, not reckless and short-sighted cuts.
Without eyes in the sky and boots on the ground, there’s no telling how many more wildfires will grow out of control and threaten lives and property. Is our provincial government really willing to take the risk?