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After Importing 2,000 Firefighters from Across the Globe, What’s Next for Alberta? | Breaking:


Andrew Buchanan, a Strathcona County firefighter, says he can’t talk for long. Wildfires move quickly and there’s no guarantee that an alarm won’t go off while he’s on the line, sending him back to work.

It’s been a challenging wildfire season, said Buchanan, who is also the lead training officer for the Emergency Services Academy (ESA), which provides professional firefighting training.

The size of the fires is large, and when combined with a lack of moisture, the amount of dry fuel, the weather and wind, the conditions are not working in favor of firefighters, he said.

“We definitely need more firefighters. I mean, when you look at these large-scale incidents, it seems like we always have to bring in military, we have to bring in overseas help,” Buchanan said. “I don’t think that will be sustainable going forward.”

An old car lies burned out in a wooded area, where recent wildfires have damaged the land, in Drayton Valley, Alta, on May 17. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta has been in the throes of a devastating wildfire season for several weeks now. Canadian Forces reservists joined the front lines last month.

Challenges have emerged across the country. More than 2.7 million acres of forest went up in flames across Canada last month, including BC, Ontario and Manitoba, Emergency Relief Minister Bill Blair said last week.

Still, the minister said Ottawa is not yet short of firefighting resources, though in response to a reporter’s question, he said the wildfires could eventually test limits.

A man in a suit speaks in front of Canadian flags at a microphone.
Emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair speaks in Ottawa on Thursday during an update on the 2023 wildfire season. He said hundreds of firefighters from the United States, Australia and New Zealand would arrive. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

“I don’t want to call this a contest, but we have a lot of fires in many parts of the country using limited resources, both within Canada and internationally,” Blair said.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson previously said the country will participate in an international pilot project to train firefighters from towns and cities to respond to fires threatening homes and businesses. Canada has provided $170 million to develop the WildFireSat system, expected to launch in 2029, which uses a “purpose-built public satellite system” to monitor wildfires.

When it becomes unprecedented precedent

During challenging wildfire seasons, Alberta can access additional firefighting resources from other jurisdictions through the use of resource-sharing agreements, many of which are allocated through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center (CIFFC).

This year, the province welcomed 1,836 firefighters from British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Another 215 firefighters from South Africa were due to arrive this weekend.

“In extreme circumstances, some resources are deployed through (CIFFC) may be canceled, diverted or demobilized early,” wrote Derrick Forsythe, a spokesman for Alberta Wildfire.

“However, Alberta has independent resource-sharing agreements, such as the Northwest Compact and an agreement with Jalisco, Mexico, that can be used to solicit additional assistance if needed.”

A woman's portrait is shown.
Jen Beverly is an assistant professor of wildfires in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta. She said Canada will have to approach fire in a new way, including a shift in focus from unreliable fire forecasts to assessing and mapping fuel hazards. (Submitted by Jen Beverly)

Jen Beverly, a former firefighter and now assistant professor of wildfire research at the University of Alberta, said there is good, documented evidence of increasing trends of longer fire seasons and larger fires, as well as an increased frequency of prolonged dry spells.

“It’s no longer the case that we can look at past data and then understand what to expect this year or next year. In fact, that word ‘unprecedented’ is what I hear most often around fire season — unprecedented fire behavior.” said Beverly, who works in the renewable resources department at the U of A.

“I’ve heard that so many times over the last 10 years. It’s like the precedent is unprecedented. We should expect unprecedented circumstances.”

Radio Active8:04Wildfire mapping

A new tool from researchers at the University of Alberta could help more communities understand how vulnerable they are to wildfires. Jen Beverly is an assistant professor of Wildland Fire at the U of A.

That means officials can’t rely on their past experience or data when it comes to wildfires, Beverly said, and everyone needs to approach the challenge differently.

“It’s shifting from what, I think, has been a focus on trying to predict and accepting that we can’t do that very well,” Beverly said, and a potential area of ​​focus could be fuel hazard assessment and mapping.

For Buchanan, the Strathcona County firefighter, the situation across the county has led more and more people to turn to the ESA for firefighting training. But the situation now calls for more action, he said.

“The more local boots on the ground we can train here means we will be much more effective in the long run,” he said.

“If this is the kind of spring seasons we’re going to see — dry, heavy fuel loads, increased wildfire risks — we’ll need to have those trained first responders ready, rather than relying on international support.

“That’s incredible, people coming in. But I just don’t think this is a system that’s going to work in the long run.”

The CIFFC lists five levels of preparedness, which refer to the wildfire situation and the availability of firefighting equipment in Canada. Level 1 is the lowest risk and level 5 the highest. As of Friday, Alberta was listed as Level 5.

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