Trina Moyles is the author of Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest.
I worked for Alberta Wildfire for seven years as a lookout observer, climbing a 100-foot tower and watching for smoke from April to September. In 2016, my first season, on my fourth day on the job, I witnessed a grassfire take off in the scorching hot, bone-dry conditions of early May. Within minutes, not one, but four giant columns of smoke exploded. The fires were caused by sparks cast from the friction of a train braking along the tracks and catching in the cured grass. Grassfires can race at the speed of 25 kilometres an hour.
More impressive than the rate of spread of the wildfires, however, was the speed at which Alberta’s firefighting response system was triggered into action. The tower to my east, manned by a veteran lookout, or “lifer” as we call them, reported the locations of the fires to the district’s duty officer. A radio dispatcher answered and dispatched firefighting crews, manned up at a neighbouring location, and tankers toward the location of the fire. Within minutes, the wildfire was confirmed. The radio erupted with voices. I watched tankers hit the flames with red clay retardant to box the fire in. Multiple crews landed to work the fire from the ground. As a rookie lookout, I was in awe. The system worked so effectively because the people within it had built up multiple seasons of experience in their respective roles. Within a few hours, there was no trace of smoke. The firefighters had protected a nearby community from the fires.
In the world of wildfire management, experience matters. Experience is what keeps communities safe from wildfires and firefighters safe on the fire line. Experience results in a faster, more efficient delivery of wildfire detection, assessment and management. Experience can only be achieved in a system where people feel valued, fairly compensated, and have the opportunity to learn and grow within the organization.
More than a system, Alberta Wildfire was a culture of individuals called to the line of wildfire response, people who lived and breathed for “fire season,” who planned and sacrificed their lives around it. Firefighter crew leaders often had more than seven years of experience. Most of my neighbouring tower workers had, on average, double that. Many of the managers and rangers were former firefighters who had decades of on-the-ground experience.
A series of government cutbacks and defunding, however, has seriously damaged Alberta Wildfire’s ability to prevent and respond to wildfires. The NDP cut $15-million from the budget in 2016. Three years later, the United Conservative Party (UCP), despite the severity of the 2019 fire season in Alberta, with multiple northern and Indigenous communities affected by the Chuckegg Creek and McMillan wildfire complexes, subsequently deepened those cuts. In November, 2019, they slashed the Rappel Attack Program (RAP), a 40-year-old program that trained firefighters to propel from helicopters into remote areas. They also decommissioned 26 fire towers, one-fifth of the province’s lookout detection program. Then-agriculture and forestry minister, Devin Dreeshen, told the CBC, “We don’t want politics getting in the way of how we fight fires. We want experts in the actual field to actually say how we should actually fight fires.”
But the UCP have done anything but listen to wildfire experts.
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In fact, they’ve ignored expertise generated from historical wildfire events that built up and bolstered Alberta Wildfire’s effectiveness. The Flat Top Complex Wildfire Review, a report released in 2012, recommended the government hire additional wildfire rangers and crews for doing sustained action on wildfire complexes, while commencing firefighter training earlier in April to prepare for large-scale wildfires in May. From 2020 to 2021, the UCP cut permanent staff in Alberta Wildfire, including wildfire rangers – people hired from that very report – and regional information officers, who were responsible for educating the public to prevent wildfires and keep informed on active wildfires.
Despite evidence from experts that climate change is predicted to lengthen the fire season, increase lightning ignition and the frequency of wildfires, along with fire intensity and area burned, in the spring of 2022, the UCP government cut the contractual seasons of wildfire response personnel, including firefighters, dispatchers and lookouts, by 10 per cent. As a result, there are fewer firefighters trained and ready to deploy in early May than in previous seasons. Most seasonal personnel were laid off mid-August last year, including the early closing of fire towers, despite the extreme fire hazard and potential for wildfires.
In four short years, the UCP has created a firefighter retention crisis, or a “brain drain” of experienced firefighters leaving Alberta Wildfire for other agencies that offer longer seasons and opportunity for full-time employment. I’ve been told that in some districts, 60 per cent of firefighters are first-years – with no previous fire experience.
That can result in reduced efficiency managing wildfires, says Désirée Gerber, a former firefighter in Alberta who worked nine fire seasons in the province. “Many [firefighters] are becoming leaders with little experience,” Ms. Gerber says. “This can lead to poorer decisions and can cost more.” She cites an example of an inexperienced crew leader requesting costly air-tanker assistance to manage a wildfire, whereas a more experienced leader would manage the fire with ground crews and a medium-sized helicopter. Because of cuts to the length of her season and lack of opportunity for full-time employment, Ms. Gerber was forced to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. “While I felt valued by my peers and supervisor, I didn’t feel valued by upper management,” she says.
Similarly, despite the experience and confidence that I built up over seven years at the fire tower, reporting wildfires when they were still small and easy to manage, because of the whittling down of my contract from five to four months, I made the decision to leave.
This choice, however, enables me to do what my colleagues working hard on the front lines of Alberta’s 2023 wildfire disaster can’t do. Speak out. Admit that many good, talented people working inside the constraints of policy and budget cuts feared this very situation would happen. That, because of cuts and the dismantling of what used to be considered one of the best wildfire programs in the world, Alberta was hugely underprepared to face the fire in the first days of May.
The science from experts has been clear for over a decade: Wildfires will continue to shock us. In the wake of the provincial election in Alberta, whoever is elected to power, it’s imperative to reinvest in the people working in wildfire management for the safety of our communities.