Canada Faces Similar Wildfire Risk to Australia, as Alberta Lays Off Specialist Firefighters
With heat waves and extended drought making Canada vulnerable to massive wildfires like the ones now sweeping Australia, Alberta has cut funding and jobs for about 63 specialized remote-region firefighters—and British Columbia is “poaching” some of them to join its own wildfire prevention and response team.
Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government dumped the firefighters, “who rappel from helicopters into remote locations to prevent fires from spreading and getting out of control,” in November, the Toronto Star reports. Then on December 17, “all members who were part of Alberta’s Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program (RAP) received a letter about how to apply directly to B.C.’s equivalent program: BCWS Rapattack.” It promised a streamlined application process for “candidates with previous wildfire rappel experience,” beginning in 2020.
The news hits while memories of the massive Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016 are still fresh, and with bushfires devastating the southeast Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria. “It’s such a win for B.C.,” said former Alberta RAP member Jordan Erlendson. “They just poached all of these trained personnel that Alberta put hundreds of thousands of dollars into.”
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He added that “the kind of disaster we’re seeing in Australia—that is extremely viable in Alberta.”
Erlendson’s concern was amplified by Canadian forestry specialists who say much of Canada, including some of its most populated regions, are “at higher risk for fire than ever before,” The Canadian Press reports.
“What’s happening in Australia now is extraordinary,” said Ed Struzik, a fellow at the Queen’s University Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, but “we’re as vulnerable as any country in the world.”
“Climate change’s fingerprints are all over these Australian fires,” added University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan. “The warmer it is the longer the fire season,” and “the warmer it is the more lightning you see.”
PressProgress cites forestry experts who say British Columbia can look ahead to summer wildfires on a par with what Australia is going through now—and points to climate change as the catalyst.
“Australia is looking at five million hectares burning over a very large country,” said University of British Columbia forestry professor Lori Daniels. “We are already seeing fires of that sort of magnitude, if we look across western North America.”
Daniels added that B.C. saw the same record-breaking heat and drought in 2017 and 2018 that are making this year’s bushfire season in Australia so much worse. “We know that fires are more intense and have greater impact when conditions are hot and dry, with low humidity and high winds,” she said. “In the summer of 2017, at least 85 maximum temperature records were set in B.C.”
The story cites a report by the University of Victoria’s Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, which determined that climate effects may have made the province’s 2017 wildfire season up to 11 times more destructive. “A record 1.2 million hectares burned in British Columbia, Canada’s extreme wildﬁre season of 2017,” the report stated. “Human-induced climate change contributed greatly to the probability of the observed extreme warm temperatures, high wildﬁre risk, and large burned areas.”
Struzik told CP the risk of extreme wildfires is being driven up by a combination of climate change, human activity, and the large volume of fuel in forests ravaged by mountain pine beetle and other pests. “We’re seeing things that we just haven’t really seen before,” he said. “So the signals are there. Very strong signals that we’re going to see things get a lot worse before they get better.”