Forest fires raging in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are taxing assets in those provinces and requiring firefighters, planes and equipment from across the country to head west in significant numbers.
Fire agency managers in those provinces – and to a lesser extent in Manitoba – plus the Yukon and Northwest territories are under strain to find the human and materiel resources to meet the need of suppression efforts on large fires, which are threatening communities and blackening swaths of forest. Of equal challenge is to balance the need of those larger fires with the need to have enough firefighters and gear in reserve to meet any new fires that may start in the days to come, catching them small and keeping them that way.
Although members of the Canadian military can be called upon to provide some assistance, as Saskatchewan has already done, it is the Type 1 firefighters and experienced management who are most sought after to bolster provincial staff consumed by efforts for weeks on end, and exhausted by the long days and arduous conditions.
Rare is the fire season when the entire country burns simultaneously, meaning that while some provinces are in a demand position, other provinces are in a supply position willing to export their own firefighters, pumps, hose, chainsaws, water bombers, pilots and command staff.
Matching the requests for assistance with the offers of help is the role of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). The Winnipeg-based company is the creation of the federal government and provinces, tasked with co-ordinating the mobilization of fire fighting resources around the country.
“Ideally what we try and do is get the closest available resource just for cost and efficiency and speed, but we’re well beyond that now,” said Marc Mousseau, aviation and equipment co-ordinator at CIFFC, whose job it is to oversee the daily activity of requests and offers.
CIFFC defines three types of firefighters – 1, 2 and 3 – with Type 1 being the highly trained, initial-attack-capable firefighter and Type 3 being volunteers or those with the least amount of training and experience, therefore exposed to the least amount of risk.
Further distinguishing the types is that Type 1 firefighters have achieved a fitness standard agreed to by provincial agencies.
Ontario’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services has over 300 fire personnel, the majority of which are Type 1 firefighters, on loan currently in Alberta, B.C. and NWT. In June the province had another contingent 250 strong, divided between the Yukon and Alberta.
Along with several of the province’s CL-415 water bombers in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ontario also has two incident management teams plus a command team assigned to oversee suppression efforts on larger fires or fire complexes – clusters of smaller fires grouped together – for ease of management.
Access to well-trained, highly-skilled and experienced people and equipment allows a province to significantly increase its own fire personnel and equipment numbers quickly and easily, without carrying them on provincial payrolls at various times or during summers when the fire hazard is less to contend with, said Duncan MacDonnell, with Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
“The benefit is that we can bring in additional highly trained, professional, experienced wildfire [firefighters] on a short-term on short notice, if we need it,” said Mr. MacDonnell.
Alberta, for example, has 495 Type 1 firefighters. The running total to date for out-of-province firefighters thus far is 406, nearly doubling its provincial number.
In Saskatchewan, all of its 210 Type 1 firefighters have been engaged in its ongoing battle, being aided by 90 out of province firefighters and lifting its provincial numbers by nearly a third.
The Northwest Territory has 140 Type 1 firefighters but is currently hosting 80 from Ontario.
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have joined the battle in Saskatchewan are being used as Type 3 firefighters, according to Steve Roberts, executive director of Saskatchewan’s Wildfire Management branch.
And most provinces have access to Type 2 firefighters, often provided through private contractors or who come from aboriginal communities.