Hundreds of international firefighters are leaving as their contracts expire and as blazes in their own countries require their attention, but a surging wildfire emergency in Canada means at least one province and one territory are urgently requesting more reinforcements.
In a year with record territory burned across the country, the fire risk remains extreme in Western Canada, with the majority of active fires in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alberta, in that order.
But 680 international firefighters are battling blazes across Canada, compared with their record peak in early July, when 1,754 were deployed, said Marieke deRoos, spokesperson for the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Fire Fighting Centre (CIFFC), which manages the country’s flow of interprovincial and foreign fire personnel.
Michael Norton, a director-general at the Canadian Forest Service, said during a federal briefing late last week that Ottawa is in active talks with other countries to supply more firefighting help and avoid a critical staffing shortage during what he called a “challenging marathon” of a season.
On Wednesday, Natural Resources Canada, which oversees the federal government’s wildfire response, could not say how these talks are progressing and which countries were involved.
The Northwest Territories government, facing a blaze that threatens the provincial capital, confirmed Wednesday that it has requested dozens of firefighters to battle some of the 236 active wildfires alongside the 65 South African firefighters and 120 Canadian soldiers deployed there now.
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Northwest Territories, said his region needs “all the help we can get.”
“We’ve got the resources in place to take on the challenges right in front of us here, but we’ve got folks who are tired – they’ve been working all summer – and we need to keep refreshing people,” he said Wednesday.
The BC Wildfire Service said it has a continuing request in to CIFFC for extra personnel – in part to replace the nearly 200 Americans and Australian firefighters who have left B.C. over the past week.
More than 100 Mexican colleagues were recently cleared to come to B.C. and are set to arrive within a week or so, according to the wildfire service.
The Yukon government did not immediately respond to a request Wednesday asking whether it required extra support. Alberta, the province with the fourth-highest number of active fires, is not seeking extra help: It currently has 200 firefighters from Mexico, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States.
Ms. deRoos, with the co-ordination centre, said her federal agency does not confirm which provinces or territories are requesting what.
“Unfortunately these things shift and change almost on an hourly basis, so it’s for that reason that’s just something that we don’t share,” she said.
But B.C. has by far the most out-of-province firefighters helping it this week, with 406 people from Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Australia, plus another 439 Canadians from other provinces tackling some of the 367 active fires. Alberta has the next most foreigners fighting fires with nearly 250 people from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, according to Ms. deRoos.
Ms. deRoos said typically many eastern Canadian firefighters wrap up their fire season and agree to head west to help, which is happening now with Ontario.
“Things are levelling out more or less from a national perspective and hopefully because of that we’ll be able to support B.C. in that way,” she said.
With climate change fuelling the worst pan-Canadian fire season on record, critics have called on Ottawa to create a national force of several hundred wildfire personnel to step up when provincial resources are stretched and decrease the reliance on international partners – some of whom can take 10 days to arrive and start tackling fires.
Asked last week about a national wildfire-fighting force, Mr. Norton said the federal government has had no specific discussion about that policy option, adding that fighting wildfires has traditionally been a provincial responsibility. But, he said, the federal government is funding the training of 1,000 new staff to combat attrition in the provincial corps.
Sarah Budd, a spokesperson with the BC Wildfire Service, said a cold front is expected to begin snapping the provincial heat wave on Thursday, bringing lightning and more fire starts with it.
She said the Latin American crews, which have staggered their arrivals in B.C., are helping local firefighters get a much-needed break before what is expected to be an intense final few weeks of this fire season.
“Even though it’s been an intensely challenging year, people are really giving it what they’ve got and we’re all working as hard as we can and doing our best,” said Ms. Budd, who added that initial attack crews have been able to help contain 60 of the 76 new fires discovered over the past week.
Sebastian Kallos, chair of the local bargaining unit in the B.C. General Employees’ Union, which represents many provincial wildfire service staff, said the extended heat this week is making the job tougher for his members already battling burnout.
“You just can only drink so much water, I remember when I was on the crew there during kind of similar heat, I drank eight litres of water a day,” he said. “The body doesn’t like these conditions.”