Canada should consider a national firefighting force that could be rapidly deployed to any province or territory that requests help, say two scientists in BC
The idea was raised this week by a wildfire expert at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, in the interior about 100 miles northwest of Kelowna, who argued that it currently takes too long to get help from outside the province or from other countries.
“The military has been called in multiple times,” said science professor Mike Flannigan, who is BC’s Chair of Innovation Research in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science.
“I don’t think this is sustainable for us to use the Canadian military every year. If we had trained the national force, we could use them preemptively rather than reactively as we tend to do now.”
But the federal government said the idea is not on the table, at least not yet, and that firefighting is the province of provincial and territorial powers, while Ottawa focuses on funding, training, equipping and investigation.
“There is no specific discussion about a dedicated national force,” Michael Norton, director of the Canadian Forest Center for Natural Resources Canada, said at a technical briefing for reporters Friday in north Vancouver.
“Our fire suppression system is based primarily on provincial and territorial responsibility for public lands.
“I don’t want to convey that nothing is off the table… Any idea could emerge as viable and desirable by the various jurisdictions.”
He said there will be a review with the provinces and territories of the lessons learned from this year’s fire season once it ends.
However, while Flannigan agreed that firefighting would normally be an area of provincial authority, “we’re in uncharted territory,” he said.
That’s because this year’s record-breaking wildfire season has burned an estimated 134,000 square kilometers, six times worse than the 10-year average in any given year.
That’s almost double the previous record of 76,000 square kilometers that burned in 1989.
“We currently spend $1 billion [annually] … 2023 is going to be over $1 billion, I’ll tell you right now,” Flannigan said.
“And this is only going to increase over time as we see more and more fires.”
Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s minister for emergency preparedness, said the country already has “sufficient resources to handle wildfires.”
“I understand how important it is to have the capacity to combat increasingly frequent, unpredictable and intense bushfires,” Sajjan said in a statement to Breaking: on Friday, adding that the Canadian Armed Forces remains ready to deploy when requested by the provinces.
Prevention and mitigation
Another fire expert questioned whether a fire response squad would address the real problem of wildfires: preventing the worst dangers by removing fuels to burn near communities.
Ecologist and wildfire consultant Robert Gray told Breaking: that he would prefer to see that approach, and praised Ottawa’s emphasis on fire prevention efforts at the indigenous and community levels.
“Should we focus on the answer?” Gray, in Kimberley, BC, about 100 miles west of the Alberta border, he told Breaking: on Friday.
“Everybody tells us that we have to move to mitigation and prevention.
“More people, yes, but more people to do that initial work related to fuels, preparing communities and infrastructure, so that they can survive and be resistant to fire.”
He said that unlike the US, which already has tens of thousands of employees scattered across the country, for Ottawa to take on that role “would be a little more difficult.”
The Canadian Interagency Wildland Fire Center (CIFFC) currently helps provinces coordinate wildfire response, training and mutual aid.
A spokesperson said the center “expects all options to be on the table after this wildfire season,” but could not comment on specific proposals.
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The idea of a new national firefighting force gained support from another scientist, the biologist Richard Cannings.
South Okanagan Member of Parliament West Kootenay told Breaking: that he wants Ottawa to look closely at Flannigan’s proposal.
It would put Canada in line with similar countries affected by fires, such as Australia. Cannings said such an initiative could reduce financial and staffing stress on regional wildfire services and increase the efficiency through which provinces can quickly respond to new fires.
“This is what we are going to be living [with] for decades and centuries to come,” he told Breaking:. “So let’s get ready for it.
“It would be better to train a national force and bring it to the right place at the right time… a civilian force that we can use across the country.”