Thousands of provincial firefighters are battling a devastating start to wildfire season, with hundreds of Canadian soldiers and foreign firefighters scrambling to reinforce stretched units in Nova Scotia, Alberta and Quebec, where thousands have been forced from their homes.
Cool rains over the weekend led Alberta to end its month-long state of emergency Sunday and similar weather helped mitigate a number of blazes in Nova Scotia, where five wildfires remained active in the province Sunday afternoon and many of the 16,000 people who fled their suburban Halifax homes remain evacuated.
So far this season, there have been no reported deaths, but 10 times the average amount of terrain has been scorched, compared with the past decade, which has renewed calls for a federal solution to supplement provincial and international firefighting resources. There are no estimates for how much federal and provincial firefighting efforts have cost so far this season.
To date, 566 firefighters have travelled between provinces this year to help other jurisdictions, and another 443 firefighters and other trained experts have come to Canada from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, with waterbombers and helicopters from Montana deployed in Nova Scotia Sunday.
Another 200 firefighters from South Africa were deployed to Alberta Sunday and Quebec’s government said about 200 Canadian Armed Forces members were working in that province. Quebec is also training 200 more firefighters to join their efforts and 200 provincial police officers are now helping fight 35 blazes across the province.
On Sunday morning, French President Emmanuel Macron posted on social media that 100 firefighters from his country would soon travel to Quebec.
There were more than 150 active fires Sunday in the “intensive zone,” which covers roughly the southern half of the province, according to Quebec’s wildfire agency.
The provincial wildfire agency is not equipped to fight so many fires at once, so its 475 firefighters are focused on protecting critical infrastructure, provincial Minister of Public Security François Bonnardel said.
An estimated 14,000 people had been evacuated as wildfires continue to progress in Quebec, straining resources at a moment when other provinces are still struggling to contain multiple out-of-control blazes at home.
Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops who has been studying the interaction of fire with weather and climate for more than 35 years, said Ottawa is spending more money each wildfire season sending in its military to help suppress fires as well as evacuating people. So, he argues, the federal government needs to explore creating its own national pool of seasonal firefighters and a squadron of water bombers.
Dr. Flannigan estimated 20 crews of 20 firefighters, the standard number of people exported by countries internationally, would be a great help jumping on fires quickly before they become too big to fight.
Canada, among the countries with the most trees in the world, has been very successful managing wildfires, but experts predict the number of fires too intense for even large water tankers to suppress could double by the end of this century.
The Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which helps provinces field requests for firefighters from other parts of Canada as well as six other countries, said it took about a week for 200 South African firefighters to arrive in Alberta after a request went out for international help.
Spokesperson Jennifer Kamau told The Globe and Mail Sunday that getting foreign firefighters visas, chartering them planes and getting them connected with the Canadian wildfire agency often takes at least that much time, with the average being about 10 to 12 days. The centre can also seek help from Mexico and Costa Rica and is currently in talks with a “handful” of other countries to secure new bilateral firefighter-sharing agreements, she added.
At a briefing in Ottawa Thursday, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said his government is concerned that there won’t be enough people and equipment where and when they are needed as an area almost five times the size of Prince Edward Island burned across eight provinces and the Northwest Territories.
On Sunday, his spokespeople declined to say whether the federal government has studied the feasibility of creating either a national corps of firefighting staff to tackle Canadian wildfires or a squadron of water bombers to assist provinces and territories in suppressing wildfires. An e-mailed statement said Mr. Blair is working to update the Federal Emergency Response Plan and this new framework will “reflect the realities of increased climate-related events.”
Officials said Sunday the wildfire that tore through the Halifax area is 100 per cent contained. Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources said the Tantallon fire northwest of the provincial capital’s downtown is now under control and no longer growing.
The blaze broke out a week ago, forcing 16,000 people from their suburban homes and damaging or destroying some 200 structures, including dozens of homes.
In Shelburne County, meanwhile, the Barrington Lake wildfire – the largest in the province’s history – continues to burn out of control.
The blaze covers 250 square kilometres and has destroyed at least 50 homes and cottages.
With reports from Cassie MacDonell and The Canadian Press