Premier Brad Wall has put a price tag on fighting this season’s wildfires: $100 million — so far.
Speaking after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to the Saskatchewan legislative building on Friday, Wall said the province will apply to the federal government for monetary assistance to offset that cost.
Wall also took Harper’s visit as an opportunity to plug the national firefighting approach he and B.C. Premier Christy Clark first floated at a premiers’ meeting in Newfoundland earlier this month. The strategy includes a national cache of firefighting equipment in partnership with the provinces and firefighting training for Canadian Forces members.
Harper was non-committal on delivering those requests, as he was when he visited B.C. earlier this week.
“Our government does stand by and is ready to assist any province or territory that requests federal assistance in fighting forest fires,” he said.
“That is definitely something we’re going to review: What we can do to better anticipate, better respond, mitigate whatever these types of incidents (are).”
But those talks are only going to happen “when the dust settles.”
Harper toured the La Ronge area earlier Friday, speaking with local leaders like Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. Reporters were not permitted on the tour.
A stronger initial attack on the wildfires threatening La Ronge could have prevented a lot of angst, said Cook-Searson. First Nations need more funds to train their members to fight forest fires, she added, and proper equipment to prepare them for such an unpredictable blaze.
“A lot of people, when they were getting off the (evacuation) bus, first thing people said when they see me (was), ‘I wanted to go firefighting. I wanted to be here helping,’” she said.
Harper said he was “very concerned” by the devastation he witnessed.
When asked if waiting until the wildfire season is over to open talks leaves enough time before the next season, Harper said the focus now should be on putting out existing fires.
“I don’t think it would be responsible to speculate on what fires we may or may not have (next year). I was telling the premier earlier, every year I get a briefing in the early spring about what our risks are. It always seems there’s risk of fire or risk of flood,” he said.
Harper added, “There is already significant co-ordination between levels of government” when it comes to wildfires.
Wall praised the federal government’s swift response to Saskatchewan’s request for military help, and is pleased to see conversations with the prime minister beginning on the topic of a national approach.
While he agreed extinguishing existing fires is the priority, he insisted that a decision on a national approach must be made by April 2016.
“Whatever we can learn from this season here and in other provinces we need to learn it and implement the changes effective April next year so that it’s in place, in time for the next fire season, which we hope is back to what it has been the last eight years or so, which is fairly mild.”
Wall is reconsidering his request for national firefighting training for Canadian soldiers. He said after speaking with military leaders before the Forces left Saskatchewan, he found the training by the province’s own wildfire branch to be a “compact,” effective program tailored to the area. Wall said he might recommend to other premiers that each province develop its own training program.