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Wildland firefighters’ union worried about 2024 season: ‘Albertans should be concerned’

With 1,092 wildfires burning a record-breaking 2.2-million hectares, the 2023 wildfire season in Alberta was unprecedented. That means officials should be more prepared for 2024, right?

“For 2024, now we have precedent,” said Randy Schroeder, president of Alberta Fire Chiefs Association (AFCA). He’s also fire chief for Lac Ste. Anne County and the Town of Mayerthorpe.

At the end of January, Alberta fire chiefs wrote an open letter to the Alberta government, urgently asking the province to disclose its wildfire preparedness strategy.

The AFCA said it met with government ministers in November, asking for additional resources, increased training capacity, equipment, aerials and for the establishment of a provincial fire services advisory committee to help develop a dedicated provincial strategy to better manage and mitigate risks associated with wildfire seasons.

Schroder said the fire chiefs have not since met with the province and are still waiting for details of the provincial wildfire strategy.

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“If there’s any frustration, it’s just that there’s been missed opportunity,” he said Thursday. “All we can do now is proactively look forward and say: ‘OK, what good things can we do to not have a repeat of 2023 in terms of our approach to the problem?’”

Click to play video: 'Alberta fire chiefs call for province to release wildfire plan'

Alberta fire chiefs call for province to release wildfire plan

Alberta municipalities are wondering what expertise, guidance and resources they’ll have when wildfires occur outside the forest protection area, Schroeder said. In its Jan. 31 open letter, the AFCA told the province it’s “not sustainable” to rely on municipalities to financially backstop wildland fire response.

“Every municipality that makes up the membership of the AFCS are all looking proactively in terms of preparation and planning and equipment and response and training of their firefighters and recruiting,” he said. “What we’re sensing is that there’s going to be a capacity issue like there was last year.

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“Personnel, equipment, contract availability, resource availability — these are all things that the government could be certainly enlightening other stakeholders on as to where they’re at,” Schroeder said.

“Is there going to be adequate number of trained staff available? Are the resources that the government would typically contract … has all that been put into place? The minister mentioned the use of technological advancements as one of his keynotes. We’d like an understanding of that status.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires Tuesday update: cooler weather helping now, conditions expected to worsen again by weekend'

Alberta wildfires Tuesday update: cooler weather helping now, conditions expected to worsen again by weekend

Alberta saw a record-breaking wildfire season in 2023. Over the course of the season — which officially runs March 1 to Oct. 31 — wildfires burn a record 2.2-million hectares, a 10-fold increase over the average season, according to the Alberta government. Last season also saw 48 Alberta communities and more than 38,000 people forced out of their homes due to forest fires.

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As of Feb. 15, in the middle of winter, there were 54 active wildfires burning in Alberta.

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“We had over 60 wildfires that were carryover wildfires from the 2023 season, which is incredibly high compared to what we typically see,” Alberta Wildfire information officer Melissa Story said on Feb. 7.

Having that many fires carry over is not normal.

“Our five-year average is about six. So, we’re sitting at 10 times as many as we usually see,” Story said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire shows off winter fires still burning, warns 2024 could be worse than last year'

Alberta wildfire shows off winter fires still burning, warns 2024 could be worse than last year

The union that represents Alberta Wildfire workers is also sounding the alarm.

In a Thursday news release, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) said experienced wildfire staff are leaving for jobs with the British Columbia Wildfire Service and Parks Canada, where pay and working conditions are better. The AUPE says “a retention and recruitment crisis” is making a dangerous job even more dangerous.

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“You could hire 100 people but if you don’t keep those 100 people, next year we’re doing the same thing with brand new staff again who have to relearn the whole process,” said AUPE vice-president James Gault.

With the unprecedented wildfire season last year, more winter fires than usual, and a dry fall and winter, there’s concern the 2024 wildfire season will also be extreme.

“We didn’t have a large snow, so we are in a drought-like scenario,” Gault said.

“The government claims that it is prepared for this fire season, but Albertans should be concerned that this is very likely not the case,” he added.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire-mapping tool points out where communities are at risk'

Alberta wildfire-mapping tool points out where communities are at risk

The minister of Forestry and Parks declined an interview but provided a statement to Global News, saying preparations for the 2024 wildfire season have “been underway for months.”

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“Wildland firefighter hiring and training are on schedule,” a spokesperson for Todd Loewen said in a statement. “So far in 2024, 196 wildland firefighters and support staff have been hired. In addition to government wildland firefighters, we have also secured Firetack contracts for when additional resources are required.

“This year, Alberta Wildfire has used an expression-of-interest process to secure positions for returning seasonal staff from the previous wildfire season, ensuring we have experienced staff on the front lines.

“Alberta Wildfire has also piloted a speed interview process for hiring wildland firefighter crews. In the 2024 wildfire season, wildland firefighters will start earlier and be given the opportunity to work later in the season if conditions require it,” the statement said.

The union — which has more than 95,000 members, including 20,000 Alberta government workers — says it wants more funding for wildland firefighting. In 2019, the UCP government cut the the Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program — also known as the RAP program — as well as detection tower staff and an air tanker unit. The NDP government also made cuts to the wildfire budget in 2016.

Click to play video: 'Alberta is not bringing back wildfire rappel crews, new firefighter hires will be ground support'

Alberta is not bringing back wildfire rappel crews, new firefighter hires will be ground support

The fire chiefs are asking for communication. They want to know the province’s wildfire plan.

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“Time is of the essence,” Schroeder said. “We’re still proactively reaching out to government officials to voice our concerns and our recommendations.”

The AFCA recently wrote to the premier, he said, asking for an all-ministries approach to the upcoming wildfire season.

“We believe that it’s time to get to the table,” Schroeder stressed. “We’re not going to solve the problem in the nine or 10 weeks before we’re hitting the ground running — or sooner, with respect to potential wildfire — because we do already have wildfire happening in the province. But we can certainly start the process, and that’s basically what we’re looking for.

“We’re looking for more collaboration and open dialogue to address what they feel are challenges in approach to the fiscal management of planning (for) and fighting wildfires,” Schroeder said.

That includes any details of wildfire support contained in the provincial budget, which is coming out Feb. 29.

Click to play video: 'Volunteer firefighter in coma after wildfire injury in northern Alberta'

Volunteer firefighter in coma after wildfire injury in northern Alberta

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