Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

President of Arctic Fire Safety Services Kris Liivam, in Kamloops, B.C., on June 6, is calling foul on some fire prevention contracts being awarded to American companies. He argues it's work that could be done by Canadians.Marissa Tiel/The Globe and Mail

Private firefighters in Alberta are raising concerns with Canadian immigration authorities and the Canada Border Services Agency about providing work exemptions to a large U.S. private wildfire company that has been hired by insurers to fireproof homes in Western Canada.

Bozeman, Mont.-based Wildfire Defense Systems (WDS) was contracted last month by Intact Financial Corp. IFC-T as part of a new wildfire loss-prevention pilot project. The partnership offers fire prevention services to most home policyholders in Alberta and British Columbia when their homes are threatened by a wildfire that is less than five kilometres away.

Shortly after, Gore Mutual Insurance Co. announced a similar arrangement with WDS for its policyholders in British Columbia. And in early June, Aviva Canada launched its partnership with WDS for homeowners in Alberta and British Columbia.

Within days of the Intact partnership announcement, more than a dozen trained American professionals packed up their gear, crossed the border into Fort McMurray, Alta., and began to fireproof hundreds of residential homes from a blaze that was closing in on the city. WDS does not include wildfire or fire suppression. As a provider of emergency services, it is allowed to work in Canada without a work permit because of an exemption for foreign nationals who offer protection or preservation of life or property.

But the presence of the WDS fire vehicles caught the attention of several private firefighter organizations in the province.

Kristopher Liivam, president of Arctic Fire Safety Services Ltd. in Eckville, Alta., said he was surprised and disappointed that the U.S.-based company was granted work permit exemptions as there is an “abundant amount” of contract emergency response resources in Alberta.

Arctic Fire Safety has been in business since the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that destroyed more than 2,500 homes and commercial properties. Today, Mr. Liivam employs around 26 private firefighters, and operates nine fire trucks in Alberta and the Yukon.

“There are roughly a dozen companies, 2,000 private firefighters, 200 private fire trucks and numerous sprinkler protection trailers operated by private enterprise,” Mr. Liivam said in an interview. “Whatever information WDS provided to get their work permits must be reviewed urgently, as they are now taking work away from Canadian firefighters who operate within a narrow band of emergency response.”

“I cannot see how they would be exempted from work permits as they were deployed privately and not through government agencies,” he added.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Jeffrey MacDonald responded to Globe questions about the exemptions, saying “We cannot confirm that foreign nationals have been engaged in Canada by the company you are referring to or, if they have, what type of status they have.”

WDS spokesperson Scott Eskwitt told The Globe in an e-mail that the company’s resources and field personnel enter Canada for specific wildfire response and at the invitation of their insurance clients under the “lawful exemptions to work permits and equipment requirements provided for emergencies.” Those exemptions include protecting property from fire during an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature – such as a wildfire.

“For every response at the request of our clients, WDS ensures that it has satisfied all requirements for an emergency response under Canadian law and regulation,” Mr. Eskwitt said.

The WDS crews stay in Canada only until pre and postwildfire loss mitigation services are complete for client properties and then return to the United States. Mr. Eskwitt said the company does not contract with, and is not paid any money by any government agency for the wildfire prevention services it provides.

Mr. Liivam said the services WDS offers – and many other fire prevention operations – are not a specialized response that should be deemed emergency work. Rather, many of the services are done ahead of a blaze and do not include fire suppression.

WDS crews can clear materials from around a property that may fuel a fire (such as propane tanks, grass clippings and lawn furniture), as well as covering exterior vents, doors and windows to prevent embers from entering the home; setting up temporary sprinkler systems to increase humidity and lower temperatures; or in some cases, spraying fire retardant or fire gel on properties.

Gore Mutual said its recent partnership with WDS was the result of past discussions with the company, which pitched its services to protect policyholders’ properties from impending wildfires. Gore Mutual spokesperson Karin Fritzlar said in an e-mail to The Globe that no Canadian company has approached it directly to discuss a similar opportunity.

“We needed an outfit that would have the scale and experience required to protect multiple properties in a concentrated area very quickly,” Ms. Fritzlar said. “WDS has a very large team to protect the properties throughout each province at the exact same time. They also proactively monitor our properties, so no action is required on our end to deploy their services at the time of a fire. There was no comparable Canadian, or American for that matter, company who provided the same services as WDS at the same scale.”

Aviva Canada spokesperson Hazel Tan said it partnered with WDS to provide a free service to customers that will help protect their homes during active wildfires.

Julie Nolette, vice-president of personal lines for Intact Insurance West, Ontario and Atlantic Divisions, said prior to launching the pilot project, the insurer conducted research on companies that specialize in these types of services.

“We ultimately chose to partner with WDS given its unique proposition that met all our specific needs and requirements in terms of scalability, expertise, and technology,” Ms. Nolette said in an e-mail.

Larry Werner, owner and president of Wildcat Fire Services Inc., which has been operating in Alberta for 19 years, says he has never been contacted by anyone in the insurance industry to discuss his business. He disagrees with the insurance industry’s view that there are no Canadian companies qualified to do the work requested of WDS. His family-owned business employs 10 qualified wildland firefighters, as well as one of the largest structural protection units privately owned in Canada.

“Why would the provincial and federal government allow Intact Insurance to bring up an American company to Fort McMurray to provide structural protection to customers while Alberta privately owned companies like ourselves and three others are not currently deployed on any fires,” Mr. Werner wrote in a letter he sent to offices for local and provincial governments.

Mr. Eskwitt said while this is WDS’s first year of operations in Canada, it is monitoring the program to see whether it is sustainable. Once the company determines that it is, WDS has “every intention” of establishing Canadian-based operations, which would then interview subcontractors and hire Canadian nationals, with an emphasis on First Nations.

“It was not feasible to establish Canadian operations or contract with Canadian subcontractors in the first year without knowing that the program would be sustainable,” he said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe