Opinion: Wildfire prevention and suppression should be a priority for the Alberta government

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Though the middle of winter might not be an obvious time to think about it, wildfire season is already a concern.

In B.C.’s Shuswap, evidence of last summer’s Bush Creek East wildfire — one of the most aggressive and destructive wildfires in B.C. history — is impossible to ignore. Blackened and burned-out vehicles, vacant land where homes once sat, charred and bare forests along both sides of the Trans-Canada Highway and huge swaths of mountainside dotted by what look like black toothpicks are surreal scenes.

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While B.C. had a terrible wildfire season last year, so did Alberta. One of the worst ever, in fact, with a total of 1,092 wildfires burning a record 2.2 million hectares, forcing 48 communities and more than 38,000 people to be evacuated.

It was a harrowing time — for those whose lives and property were threatened by wildfire, those fighting them and even those far away, whose typically clean summer air was polluted by hazy, yellow, unrelenting smoke.

In Shuswap, 283 homes and businesses were destroyed and many more suffered damage. Locals place much blame for the Bush Creek wildfire disaster on the BC Wildfire Service: the failure to suppress the fire early; insufficient resources; the policy against allowing private contractors to help fight wildfires; inexperienced staff; a planned ignition gone awry; poor communication with residents.

Similar accusations have not been made in Alberta, though structures were lost in Yellowhead County, Sturgeon Lake Cree First Nation, Little Red River Cree Nation, East Prairie Metis Settlement, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Fox Lake. This is much less than the devastation wrought in Slave Lake in 2011 (approximately 510 homes and buildings destroyed) and in Fort McMurray in 2016 (2,400 homes and buildings destroyed), some of the worst wildfire disasters in this province’s history.

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A natural part of the ecosystem, wildfires have occurred from time immemorial, and it’s no surprise that in Canada, with the second-largest land mass of any country in the world, we have our fair share.

But given our ability to learn, adapt and create ever-improving technologies, new and improved ways of dealing with wildfires do exist, and we should adopt them. Just as we learned to fight fire within communities so that entire towns no longer go down in flames all at once, so, too, can we better protect communities from the wildfires outside them.

At the close of last year’s wildfire season on Oct. 31, the province said planning is underway for this coming season and that it is “enhancing current and identifying new technologies or techniques that can be used effectively in Alberta.”

I hope so. Because putting aside the discussion of what causes and contributes to wildfires — humans or nature or some combination of both — it is a reality we must face.

The Alberta government should be investing in the latest technology, equipment, personnel and practices for successful wildfire fighting. This includes remote sensing and satellite imagery systems (including drones), better and more aerial fighting equipment (helitankers and air tankers), fire-resistant materials and building design, controlled burns and prescribed fires.

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We should be adopting successful wildfire management practices from around the globe and from our First Nations.

Well-trained and compensated firefighting personnel, including private contractors, are essential. (Full disclosure: my neighbour, Terry Raymond, is the owner of Fire and Flood Emergency Services Ltd. in Red Deer County. The stories he tells of fighting wildfires to save entire towns make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up).

These companies have the experience, skills, and cutting-edge equipment — patented high-volume, high-pressure fire suppression systems — and courage to go into dangerous situations to save lives and property. Importantly, they are ready to go. Today.

Alberta continues to be in a state of drought, and the next wildfire season is set to officially begin March 1.

I hope that after last year, our government has prioritized improving wildfire prevention and suppression in this province.

Melanie Darbyshire is the editor of Business in Calgary magazine.

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