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Ottawa is to double a tax credit for volunteer firefighters and search-and-rescue volunteers, as it warned that this year’s wildfires could prove as catastrophic as last year.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan unveiled plans in the coming budget to increase the tax credit for these volunteers from $3,000 to $6,000 from this year.

Volunteer firefighters are expected to be at the front line combatting wildfires, particularly in rural areas, as they were last year.

Mr. Sajjan said preparations were being made for serious wildfires across provinces and territories this year as forecasts predict hotter-than-normal temperatures. Among the contingency plans are for the armed forces to provide help such as airlifting people by helicopter out of danger areas, and for the EU and countries including Australia to bolster Canada’s firefighting efforts if required.

Preparations begin for coming wildfire season after last year’s strain on military resources

The federal government also announced it is earmarking in the budget an extra $166-million over five years for Indigenous communities to help them prepare and fight fires.

Last year, about 90 First Nations were evacuated, and preparations are already under way for this fire season.

Doug Odjick, a council member responsible for natural resources in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, a First Nation in Quebec, said preparations are more far advanced than last year, but at a meeting this week with a fire leader, there were concerns about safety. He said that last year retired firefighters with experience predicting the behaviour of fires and fighting them were mobilized to help.

He said practical knowledge, including on how to create buffer zones and effective fire breaks, could prove lifesaving. Mr. Odjick said when his father was a boy, he and his family fled to a water source to escape a raging blaze.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said that for generations Indigenous knowledge on how to prevent and fight fires had been “sidelined.” But a shift in approach means it will now be incorporated in national preparedness strategies, which “will make us all safer.”

The government has committed to training 1,000 new community-based “wildland” firefighters, and has already trained 467, and 109 fire guardians, many of whom are Indigenous. It has spent $8-million on a two-year pilot and is evaluating proposals to award an extra $16.8-million toward the training program over the next three years.

The increased tax credit would save volunteer firefighters up to $900 per year, Ottawa said.

The change is worth $105-million in new support for volunteer firefighters and search-and-rescue volunteers in Canada, it added.

“Canadians from coast to coast to coast have felt the increasing impacts of intense wildfires due to the changing climate. These emergencies, which threaten our communities, livelihoods and environment, are met by extraordinary individuals who volunteer as firefighters and search-and-rescue personnel. There is no braver person than one who is willing to sacrifice their own life for another,” Mr. Sajjan said.

Janelle Coultes, president of the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada, welcomed the tax credit. She said more than 9,000 volunteers put in countless hours throughout the year in a variety of disaster situations, including wildfires.

”We have a lot of people who are in search and rescue because they want to help their communities and the tax credit is kind of a nice way for us to be able to provide some sort of relief for them,” Ms. Coultes said.

Ottawa said in a statement that forecasts and early modelling of weather trends for this year indicate “we may be facing another catastrophic fire season.”

Weather conditions for spring and summer – including above-normal temperatures across the country, minimal snow coverage and widespread drought conditions, particularly in the Prairies – are forecast to lead to greater wildfire risks, it warned Wednesday.

Canada lost 8.6 million hectares of forest in 2023, more than 90% due to wildfires

Federal officials working on preparations to combat fires said in a briefing for journalists that this month there is an early risk of fire in Western Canada, Eastern Ontario and Southern Quebec. In May, they warned there is a possible risk of fire across the Prairies, eastern and Southern B.C., Northern Ontario and western Quebec.

Seventy fires are still smouldering in Canada and risk flaring up as the temperature increases in the spring, the officials said.

Last year, eight firefighters died in Canada’s most destructive fire season when 18.4 million hectares burned and smoke from fires drifted into cities and over the border into the United States.

Mr. Sajjan said a review of the response last year has led to earlier preparations and risk assessments, in co-ordination with provinces.

He said innovative firefighting methods, including using drone technology and specialist teams that can fight fires at night, could be deployed.

Ms. Hajdu said: “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”

In February, an Indigenous emergency-management group held its first meeting. A senior government official said at the briefing for journalists it would enhance communication between communities and put First Nations at the centre of preparations.

By the end of the 2023 wildfire season, 6,623 fires burned more than seven times the average of 2.5 million hectares.

Canada received international assistance from 5,500 firefighters last year, including from the United States, Costa Rica, Australia and South Africa, to help the nearly 18,000 Canadian firefighters who were deployed.

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