Shift Focus from Fighting Forest Fires to Prevention

By Botha, Johanu | Winnipeg Free Press, July 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Shift Focus from Fighting Forest Fires to Prevention


Botha, Johanu, Winnipeg Free Press


Wildfires are raging across almost a 1.2 million acres in Western Canada. Substantial resources are being allocated to suppress the fires and -- in the case of Saskatchewan -- evacuate thousands of people from their communities.

Normally tedious intergovernmental agreements are now moving at lightning pace to bring firefighters and helicopters from other jurisdictions into fire zones. This is the bread and butter of emergency management; brave people doing brave things. But the salience of the response phase veils the fact preventive steps, including ways to reduce the risk wildfires pose to people and property, have not been taken.

Canada's wildfire response is fairly good. As in many other policy areas, the provinces are primarily responsible for emergencies within their jurisdictions and many of them prioritize wildfire response in their focus and funding. The emergency management agencies in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador include fire safety in their titles. A brief overview of emergency management budgets across the provinces shows wildfire suppression takes substantial slices of the emergency management pie and, if suppression exists in programs distinct from a province's official emergency management agency, those programs are funded at the same level or better than the emergency management agency.

Along with substantial resources, wildfire response sees collaboration within the firefighting community, making it easier to share personnel across jurisdictions. As well, there is support from the federal government in the form of deployed Canadian Armed Forces members. Canada has a long and successful history of using the military for domestic humanitarian operations, and fires are no exception. More than 1,000 soldiers currently deployed in Western Canada to aid fire-suppression efforts is a case in point. The usual suspects of problematic governmental action -- conflict between levels of government and lack of resources -- are comparatively absent in wildfire response.

However, if wildfire-management success is measured in terms of prevention, and not in terms of ability to respond, the picture becomes less rosy. The funds allocated to response heavily outstrip the mitigation funds. This makes sense in part given the huge costs of fire-suppression equipment (think military-capability aircraft that drop tons of water instead of bombs), but some of those costs could be reduced by better prevention.

In Manitoba's infamous 1989 wildfire season, the province evacuated almost 25,000 people from 32 communities. …

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