Saskatchewan readies for early wildfire season after historic blazes last year

Click to play video: 'Province makes policy changes, ramps up early for fire season'
Province makes policy changes, ramps up early for fire season
Province makes policy changes, ramps up early for fire season – Feb 23, 2016

REGINA – Saskatchewan is recalling firefighting crews two weeks earlier and hiring eight new crews as it prepares for what could be an early start to the wildfire season.

An air tanker and a bird-dog aircraft, which directs the operation of the air tankers, are scheduled to be ready by March 27.

Seasonal staff will start in the Prince Albert fire centre area April 4, with workers in more northern areas on the job by mid-April.

Environment Minister Herb Cox says the province is also eliminating a 20-kilometre zone around communities facing the risk of a forest fire. He says it was only meant to be a guideline.

“It was flexible. It allowed us to access and action fires that were of the greatest risk to communities or to people,” Cox said Tuesday.

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“…We’re still going to continue to access fires whether they be 25, 30 kilometres out, if the weather conditions, the fuel in the area, temperature, forecast, wind direction, those sorts of things will all be factors that will considered in accessing a fire now.”

Cox says that was always the case, but he says there was a misperception that crews wouldn’t fight a fire if it was 21 kilometres from a community.

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“That ‘let it burn’ policy, if you will, took on a life of its own,” he said.

Some mayors complained that the policy let fires get too close to northern communities last year before there was an adequate response.

The changes are part of a response to a historic wildfire season last year.

There were 720 fires that forced about 13,000 people from their homes last year and burned 17,000 square kilometres of forest. The government’s response to the fires cost about $100 million.

Deputy environment minister Cam Swan says there were very dry conditions heading into last year and fires were getting larger, faster.

“They were burning much more intensely and they were moving a lot farther than we have seen in the past, including in hours of the day where you would traditionally not see a move quite so far, so they’re changing a bit,” said Swan.

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“Is that the new norm? That’s a good question. We don’t know, but we need to prepare for it if that is going to become the new norm.”

Temperatures over much of northern Saskatchewan were generally warmer this winter with below-normal snowfall. That could mean dry conditions this year, but Cox and Swan say they need to see how much rain falls this spring to fully assess the fire risk.

New Democrat Buckley Belanger, who represents the northern riding of Athabasca, is skeptical about the initiatives. He says there’s no financial commitment.

“There’s no dollars dedicated specifically to improving things like the response team. There’s no number attached to things like improving the evacuation procedures,” Belanger said from Ile-A-La-Crosse.

Up North, La Ronge and Lac La Ronge were some of the hardest hit areas last summer.

Community leaders say the changes are a step in the right direction, but more can be done.

“We can always improve, but I think what this shows that these recommendations are the first step moving forward. Some major recommendations, they’re big changes and that’s what we needed to see”, La Ronge Mayor Thomas Sierzycki explained.

“Hopefully the recommendation or the policy change, leads to hiring more people from Saskatchewan, so we don’t have to bring in people from outside like United States or Australia”, Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Sierson explained.

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Alberta said earlier this month that it is starting its wildfire season a month early after flames last year torched almost 5,000 square kilometres.

Alberta Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said the extra time provided with a March 1 launch will ensure crews are recruited, trained and positioned to respond quickly to any wildfires that break out in early spring and through the year.

With files from Christa Dao.

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