The Alberta government plans to hire up to four emergency responders to work along the remote highway to the oil sands.
The move comes after a small-town squad of volunteer firefighters shut down operations last year, unable to handle a grim, growing workload.
The province and a local county will contribute $1.3-million to try and hire four full-time staff to work along the notorious Highway 63.
The highway is just two lanes wide along most of the route, and is a collision hot spot. Oil sands development sent traffic soaring, leaving tiny volunteer departments to clean up the inevitable rise in collisions.
The toll was high, most notably in Wandering River, a hamlet of about 100 where the four new recruits would be based. A group of half a dozen firefighters, all of them women, were left to respond to at least one fatal collision a month, often more, in addition to more routine collisions, actual fires and their own jobs.
"It's just too many, too much. You can't work full-time and volunteer full-time," said firefighter Maureen Hagan, 49.
Their department collapsed last spring as members quit, and was officially closed in January. Other community members said they'd volunteer for local fire duty, but not to cover the highway; the province held local meetings but said emergency response is a local responsibility.
Nearby volunteer departments had been picking up the slack in Wandering River, but they're already overtaxed and are far away - response times were an hour in certain spots. The announcement of funding is meant to relieve the burden.
"It is fantastic. I went up and thanked every one of those politicians," Ms. Hagan said. "I think it's going to take some of the pressure off of the volunteers, which is a good thing. I think it's about time they did that."
Alberta will pledge $800,000, while Athabasca County will contribute $500,000 - "a significant amount of money" for a county with an annual budget of about $27-million, Reeve Dave Yurdiga said. But it was necessary. "The only solution is to have paid staff up there," he said.
Volunteers will be invited to apply for the jobs, while governments will ask oil sands companies to subsidize some of the ongoing cost, Mr. Yurdiga said.
Volunteer fire departments across the country are facing similar challenges - a lack of new recruits and increasing demand. Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau acknowledged the broader plight but characterized the announcement as one-time funding.
"Our investment recognizes the heightened situation faced by municipalities and motorists along this route…" he said in a written statement.
Ms. Hagan hopes Alberta will one day support other overstretched community departments.
"I think the whole volunteer fire service is in crisis, and one of the biggest crises is that there are so many busy highways like this that go through isolated stretches of the province, in areas that just don't have the resources to do community response," she said.
"You don't miss it until something happens, and you realize: 'I'm sitting on the highway, trapped, and I've got to wait 45 minutes to an hour for somebody to help me.' "