Edmonton

Alberta plans to hire 100 more firefighting staff but questions remain about readiness

The Alberta government will hire an additional 100 firefighters to work this season but the opposition is concerned this won't be enough in a year that could be worse for fire than 2023. 

Concerns raised about Alberta's readiness for fire in light of drought and low snowfall

A man with a swooped dark hair cut standing at a podium.
Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen announces what measures the province will be taking for the upcoming fire season. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

The Alberta government will hire an additional 100 firefighters to work this season but the opposition is concerned this won't be enough in a year that could be worse for fire than 2023. 

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen announced the new staffing measures on Tuesday in a news conference at the Whitecourt fire base.   

"We are confident we are ready to tackle the upcoming wildfire season head on to better direct our resources to fight new and existing wildfires," Loewen said. "We are declaring an early start to the 2024 wildfire season."

The 100 new firefighters will be added to the usual contingent of 900 personnel. Funding for this extra staff depends on the legislature passing the provincial budget, which will be introduced next week.  

Alberta has received a record number of applications for seasonal firefighting, Loewen said.  All staff should be ready for work by mid-April. 

When asked why he isn't asking for money to hire even more staff, Loewen said the province can rely on firefighters from other jurisdictions to help if fires get out of hand. 

He rejected the suggestion that the province should keep more full-time firefighters on staff all year round.

"If we wanted to have that many people hired and ready at all times, then I think a lot of the public would be wondering what they're doing when we don't have wildfires," Loewen said. 

"This is a system that's been in place — shared resources — and  that's the system has been in place for decades."

There are currently 54 active wildfires in the province.

Heather Sweet, the NDP critic for forestry, is concerned about the province's readiness for what could be another record-breaking season for fire. 

Sweet worries the new recruits won't get adequate training before they are sent out in the field. The government estimates about 50 per cent of firefighters are new each year. 

"I think this minister is trying to give Albertans a false sense of reality when it comes to how many firefighters we're actually going to have," she said. 

Dry brown grass with a little patch of snow on the ground.
As of Feb. 20., there are 54 active wildfires in the province. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Last month, the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association urged the province in a public letter to disclose its wildfire plan for 2024. The association asked the government to establish and include them in a new advisory committee which would come up with an improved provincial strategy. 

The letter said the current system, which leaves some municipalities outside the forest zones on their own, is not sustainable. 

Sweet said she didn't hear a plan that would address their concerns. She said Loewen needs to lobby the federal government to create a national firefighting task force so provinces don't need to bring in firefighters from places around the world to help out. 

Loewen said the government is talking to the fire chiefs. He said the province has agreements with municipalities to help out when it can.

Loewen said the province will use thermal imaging and night visions to detect and help crews fight fires in the overnight hours when the temperature is cooler and the air is more humid. 

He said the province is putting more money into fireguard programs so municipalities can clear areas around communities and make them more resistant to fire. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.

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