September 19th, 2023
Record Wildfire Season may Signal Need for National Fire Team
As we enter the last days of summer, it’s important to reflect on what has been Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, bar none. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), a not-for-profit corporation owned and operated by the federal, provincial and territorial wildland fire management agencies, declared that the 2023 wildfire season had seen the largest burned area in Canada's recorded history, not at the end of the season, or even midway through, but by June 25th, a time where, in previous years, wildfires would have just been starting. By the end of July, the CIFFC advised that wildfires had doubled, burning over 120,000 square kilometers, almost twice as much as the previous annual record, set in 1995.
Canadian wildfires were so bad that major cities were declaring air quality states of emergencies in the first week of June. Smoke clouds from fires across Quebec were blanketing Quebec, Eastern and Southern Ontario. Cities in the Eastern U.S. were severely affected by wildfire smoke, with as many as 75 million people under air quality alerts. New York City at one point recorded the second-worst air quality of any city in the world, behind only New Delhi. Canadian wildfire smoke was so severe that it was impacting air quality in Europe.
Even the riding of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing had a number of severe forest fires. White River and Hornepayne lived through some uncertain times over the course of the summer. There was also concern about fire activity in the areas of Massey and Elliot Lake, Wawa & Chapleau, as well as in the Hearst region.
While each of these were problematic on their own, it’s likely harder to shake the images coming out of Yellowknife, West Kelowna, and Nova Scotia. All 20,000 residents of Yellowknife were evacuated on August 16th, with the majority of people travelling to Edmonton for safety. The Yellowknife evacuation order was just lifted on September 6th. The West Kelowna fire started fairly small, but quickly grew from 64 hectares to 6,800 hectares over a 24-hour period between August 17th and 18th. Thousands more were evacuated, and the transition to return is now underway. Nova Scotia was hard hit by wildfires at the start of the summer, in Shelburne County and Tantallon (a suburb of Halifax), the largest in that province’s history.
Last week, a ceremony was held in Ottawa at the Canadian Firefighters Memorial to honour those brave men and women who have lost their lives as a result of their profession. This year alone, 86 firefighters have died either in the line of duty or from job-related illnesses. It’s vital that we honour their noble sacrifices. Part of that is ensuring that we address the shortcomings of the profession and ensure that the hard work of our dedicated firefighters is compensated appropriately. Given that a significant portion of firefighters are volunteers, and that we are losing those volunteers in record numbers, we must continue to push for, at the very least, increasing the volunteer firefighter tax credit from $3,000 to $10,000 to ensure they receive appropriate compensation for their work.
Additionally, Richard Cannings, the MP for the BC riding of South Okanagan–West Kootenay, has been promoting the idea of developing a national wildfire fighting force. Fighting wildfires is a provincial responsibility, but his idea is to have a national, well-trained force that can be quickly deployed to assist the provinces and territories to fight blazes before they become overwhelmed. They could additionally work throughout the year to prevent and clear problem areas before fire season starts. In many instances, when blazes become too large to manage with provincial forces alone, provinces do seek the assistance of firefighters from other jurisdictions to help. Having a nimble national force to help their provincial counterparts when they need it most could do a lot to prevent the devastating effects of large, out-of-control fires.
This summer’s fire season has been exceptional. While we are all hoping that this will not be a new normal, it’s important to commit to addressing the potential challenges of future fire seasons now and prepare for those worse-case scenarios.