NDP calls for independent review of Saskatchewan Party’s wildfire response
Watch above: The majority of northern Saskatchewan evacuees will be back in their own homes this week as the wildfire situation calms. Wendy Winiewski tells us this gives the NDP fire under its feet to call for a full inquiry into firefighting efforts.
SASKATOON – Did the province respond to the northern Saskatchewan wildfire crisis quickly enough and with enough resources? It’s a question the NDP wants answered.
“What I’m calling for is an independent inquiry to ask the questions that northerners and people in the province have been asking,” said NDP Leader Cam Broten.
Considered the largest wildfire crisis in recent history, a lightning storm on June 25 turned areas of northern Saskatchewan into infernos.
Losing ground, the province called on Canada’s military on July 4. By July 8, soldiers began deploying to help battle more than 100 raging fires, more than a quarter of which were considered out of control.
“We have to ask the questions. You know, what actions could have or should have taken place,” questioned Broten.
Critical of the provincial response, Broten believes more could have been done.
“What resources would have assisted in preventing fires from merging the way they did and presenting such a dangerous threat to communities? We have to look at the question of budget, we have to look at the question of firefighting policies,” he said.
Aside from an independent inquiry, Broten is also pushing for immediate action on four key points:
- A joint strategy with northern leaders, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, tribal councils, First Nations and the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan to hire and train many more firefighters;
- A formalized partnership for First Nations to be involved in providing shelters and other vital services during future evacuations;
- An improved communications protocol to ensure accurate, timely information is available to community leaders, including local MLAs, and all evacuees;
- Adjustments to the Provincial Disaster Assistance Program (PDAP) to make it as responsive and fair as possible for those affected by forest fires. In Manitoba, for example, the disaster assistance program includes a provision for trappers’ cabins.
According to the provincial government, it will conduct a review as it does any time there is an emergency situation. The most recent review came after provincial flood disasters.
“We reviewed, we made improvements to processes, it was open and transparent and I see something similar happening in this case,” said Government Relations Minister and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Jim Reiter, adding the wildfire response review is likely to be conducted similarly.
In 2007, $84.5 million was budgeted for wildfire management. By 2015, the budget has declined to $56 million.
According to Reiter, the budget had no impact on response.
“A budget by its very nature is a best estimate of the amount of money you’ll spend in a given year,” said Reiter.
“The premier said from day one, we’re going to protect people and property, we’re going to call in all the resources we need, all the resources that we can find available and we’ll worry about paying for it later.”
The NDP is critical of related cuts such as a move to reduce forest firefighting teams to four members from five in 2012. In 2013, human operated fire spotting towers were replaced with cameras. The NDP criticizes the move but the province maintains it was the right decision.
“If it was people in the towers they would have had to have been evacuated and the cameras were still there working, able to see through smoke,” said Reiter.
Currently, 95 wildfires continue burning and 13 are not contained.
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