Canada’s public safety minister says discussions with British Columbia officials about a federal response to wildfires in the province are ongoing, but the defence minister says the military is mobilizing to help where needed.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said Friday that additional resources are being diverted to a tactical base in Edmonton to help assist wildfire needs across the western region, including 350 military personnel.
A Hercules aircraft for transporting equipment and personnel, as well as two Chinook helicopters to join an existing helicopter fleet to airlift firefighters and, if needed, residents from wildfire hotspots have also been arriving at the base over the past few days, Sajjan said.
Sajjan said basing military resources in Edmonton allows greater flexibility to respond to wildfires across the western region throughout the summer.
“We knew from previous experience that air assets were needed,” he said. “The women and men of the Canadian Forces have experience battling wildfires throughout the country and will use those lessons to assist as needed.”
Sajjan was joined Friday by Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, all of whom repeatedly warned that this year’s wildfire season is shaping up to be severe.
Hundreds of fires are now burning across B.C., including 70 that sprang up on Thursday alone amid intense lightning storms in the province’s interior. Thousands of people have been evacuated across the province as many fires burn dangerously close to communities.
A fire that raged through the village of Lytton, B.C., on Wednesday destroyed nearly everything in its path. On Friday, the province’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said two people are presumed dead, though the reports have yet to be confirmed.
Blair said the investigation into the cause of that fire is “very actively” underway, but stressed that more information is needed from RCMP and fire investigators.
He said he has discussed the possibility that a spark from a train passing through the village may have started the fire with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, but could not say if any restrictions on train travel will be put in place to prevent future fires.
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened the federal Incident Response Group to discuss federal government aid to B.C., as well as looking ahead to further extreme weather events expected across the country this summer.
Blair told reporters that he and other federal officials have been in close contact with their provincial counterparts in B.C. as extreme heat took hold on the West Coast, which have created tinder-dry conditions that have spread across the province.
He said discussions about the particulars about what the federal government can provide to assist B.C. are ongoing, with nothing yet set in stone, but promised that Ottawa would be there to help as needed. He did not say if any official request for federal help had been received from the B.C. government.
The fire in Lytton came after the village set all-time records for the hottest spot in Canada for three consecutive days between Sunday and Tuesday.
A heat wave that meteorologists say is being caused by a so-called “heat dome” has led to scorching temperatures across B.C. since last weekend. The dome is now pushing east towards Alberta and Saskatchewan, which is already seeing its own record-breaking temperatures.
Lapointe said Friday that over 700 people in B.C. are believed to have died due to the heat over the past week.
While the two deaths in Lytton have yet to be confirmed, the entire village is now displaced and seeking shelter in surrounding communities as the damage is assessed. More evacuations have been ordered elsewhere in B.C.
Qualtrough said Service Canada has established a hotline for those affected by the wildfires, including those who have lost employment or important personal documents.
She also said her department is standing by to help affected residents receive employment insurance cheques and other mail.
Wilkinson said resources are also being diverted from Parks Canada to help with the wildfire response.
The ministers said further resources will be made available as needed not only for B.C., but for other provinces as well throughout what’s set to be a dry and potentially dangerous summer.
“Canadians can rest assured that there are strong federal, provincial and territorial mechanisms in place to ensure that we work together to help ensure the safety of all Canadians,” Blair said.