May 17, 2016 3:19 pm
Updated: May 18, 2016 10:08 am

EXCLUSIVE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Alberta agency tasked with preventing wildfires leaves millions unspent

WATCH: It's tinder dry in many places in Canada, and no one wants another Fort McMurray scenario, but as Vassy Kapelos reports, lots of communities are failing to act.

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As the wildfire surrounding Fort McMurray continues to grow, the organization responsible for implementing Alberta’s wildfire prevention strategy has left millions in government grants unspent, according to its own annual reports.

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The Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta received $23.6 million in provincial funding between 2014 and 2016 earmarked specifically for FireSmart programming, but spent only $6.9 million on wildfire prevention and mitigation during the same period. For every dollar FRIAA received in government grants, 71 cents went unspent.

The FireSmart program is a patchwork of community grant programs and direct investments administered by the provincial and federal governments, as well as FRIAA. The program requires communities to submit proposals to either the province or FRIAA for review. Proposals are then accepted, denied or sent back to the community for revision.

WATCH: The raging inferno that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray is now threatening two large oil production facilities north of the community. Reid Fiest reports.

“It’s been frustrating knowing how much money was left on the table to help communities combat wildfires in Alberta,” said Tany Yao, the Wildrose MLA for Fort McMurray – Wood Buffalo and a former fire chief.

“Many communities across our province face extreme risk from forest fire, and it only makes sense to do everything possible to protect our communities from that risk,” added Yao.

“It’s up to the government to explain to Albertans why these crucial funds have gone unspent when it potentially could have helped contribute to prevention and containment measures in not just Fort McMurray, but across Alberta,” he said.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Several homes damaged in explosions in Dickinsfield, Thickwood

Early this month, a massive wildfire swept through Fort McMurray, decimating 1,600 buildings and forcing nearly 90,000 people to evacuate the city. Residents still have no idea when they’ll be able to return home or what the community might look like when they do.

As of March 31, 2016, FRIAA’s FireSmart account contained $16.7 million in unspent taxpayer money. This figure represents more than half of the total $32.7 million allocated by the province to safeguard communities against the effects of wildfires over the past three years.

“I encourage communities in forested areas in Alberta to take advantage of that funding,” said Oneil Carlier, Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire’s return stalls Alberta oilsands recovery

When pressed on whether the province should take a greater role in administering the FireSmart program and in assisting communities access these funds, Carlier admitted that the province could do more.

“Perhaps they need a little more encouragement,” said Carlier. “Perhaps there’s an education model we can do with our communities and our citizens to knowing the FireSmart program is a proven and effective tool that they can use to help prevent, a little bit anyway, wildfires in their communities.”

But Carlier insists ultimate responsibility for safeguarding citizens against wildfire rests with individual communities.

“The communities really have to take ownership of it as well, right?” said Carlier. “And who knows better what they might need in their own community?”

IN PHOTOS: Fort McMurray wildfire continues to be seen from space

FRIAA has told Global News $4.3 million of the $16.7 million left unspent has been committed to future projects. An additional $4 million in projects could be approved as early as this week, according to FRIAA.

“FireSmart funding is a whole range of things, from public education and outreach to project and master planning,” said Todd Nash, managing director of FRIAA.

“But we can only allocate money to those projects communities propose,” he added.

“There has to be enough information for us to make a judgment and to approve funding based on merit.”

FRIAA has received 223 community grant applications from 80 communities across Alberta over the past three years. Of these, only 113 have been approved – approximately 50 per cent. The vast majority of declined proposals are the result of either ineligible applicants or ineligible projects – indicating that communities may not yet fully understand exactly how the FireSmart program works.

Nash acknowledged some communities – particularly smaller ones – have been slow to adopt FireSmart strategies, and that the initial rounds of applications were characterized by either incomplete or insufficient proposals.

“We hired experts to go out and talk to communities and to make them aware that these funding programs were available,” said Nash. “But there’s a certain capacity at work. There are only so many FireSmart experts, so many consultants.”

READ MORE: What gives Fort McMurray an edge in overcoming ‘beast’ of a wildfire

FRIAA’s website lists 39 approved projects for 2015-16, but provides no information on the costs. Fifteen of these projects include plans for clearing vegetation in and around populated areas, while a number of others focus on developing fire prevention strategies and organizing community outreach programs.

One project in particular provided funding for a community barbecue in the Lesser Slave Lake area. Another project provided funds to “solicit feedback and obtain public buy-in for planned vegetation treatments adjacent to residential areas in the Town of Whitecourt.”

Watch below: Some believe the Fort McMurray wildfire was simply a natural disaster that could not have been prevented. But others are raising concerns about what measures were in place before the fire started. That includes millions of dollars allocated for provincial wildfire prevention that have gone unspent. Quinn Ohler reports.

Alberta wildfire expert calls for two-kilometre “buffer zone” around communities

Mike Flannigan, one of Canada’s premier wildfire scientists and the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta, said communities located in and around the boreal forest should do more to protect themselves against the growing risks posed by wildfires.

“The best solution,” said Flannigan, regarding wildfire prevention and mitigation, “Is to remove all conifers within two kilometres of communities.”

According to Flannigan, burning embers from wildfires can travel upwards of two kilometres – as was the case in both the Slave Lake and Fort McMurray fires. Removing highly-flammable species such as black spruce from around communities, said Flannigan, starves potential wildfires of possible fuel sources and gives firefighters and emergency crews a chance to save homes and other important infrastructure by setting up defensive zones.

“You can still have trees nearby,” said Flannigan. “But a subdivision should not be adjacent to a full, closed-canopy conifer forest. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Watch below: Boreal forests are designed to burn and it makes fighting the fire a challenge

While Flannigan thinks Alberta has been diligent in combating wildfires, particularly since Slave Lake, he hopes programs such as FireSmart continue to grow and that governments commit to spending the resources already allocated to the prevention and mitigation of damages caused by wildfires.

“Fire is a common feature of the boreal forest,” said Flannigan. “And now more than ever people are working, living and playing in the boreal forest.”

“We have this intersection between fire and people – sometimes with devastating results,” he added. “So we need programs like FireSmart, and to stop people from starting fires.”

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