Alberta Wildfire has hired an extra 200 firefighters for the 2020 season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their objectives in wildfire suppression remain to contain the spread of a fire spread by 10:00 a.m. the following day, and to initiate suppression before the fire exceeds two hectares (4.9 acres) in size.
Like their counterparts in the United States, the agency tasked an Incident Management Team to develop a response plan to ensure they can safely and effectively manage wildfires during the pandemic. They reviewed how the agency fights wildfire and adopted best practices on physical distancing, hygiene, travel, and isolation.
All firefighters will complete a screening form prior to starting each shift.
Special procedures have been established for fire camps:
There will be greater availability of hand washing stations at all wildfire facilities.
Surfaces in washrooms and common areas will be cleaned more frequently.
The number of people gathering in one location will be limited (for example: outdoor dining will be encouraged).
Physical distancing measures will be observed where possible. Training will be conducted by webinar and in smaller groups rather than in one large central location.
Buffet-style meals will be discontinued. Food will instead be plated and served, or individually bagged.
Staff quarters will be reduced to single room occupancy in permanent camps or single occupancy tents.
The use of contracted camps, hotels and tents will be increased to supplement our operations when needed.
When traveling in vehicles and helicopters, where physical distancing is not an option, additional precautionary measures will be taken, including ensuring all parties wear appropriate facial covering/non-medical masks.
New protocols will ensure equipment and frequently-touched surfaces in vehicles and helicopters are sanitized regularly.
Camp contractors must meet new requirements to protect staff. This includes requirements for meal service and cleaning, as well as providing additional facilities and equipment as needed to reduce the risk of contamination.
The health of staff will be monitored regularly and those suspected of infection will be immediately isolated and treated.
A fire ban was introduced in the Forest Protection Area of Alberta as well as in Alberta Provincial Parks to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires and help firefighters focus on existing wildfires. An off-highway vehicle restriction was also introduced using a phased approach based on hazard. The fines for not complying with a fire ban or OHV restriction were doubled, to further reduce the number of human-caused wildfires.
In addition to these deterrents, the Government of Alberta announced an investment of $5 million to create an extra 200 firefighting positions. An additional $20 million in FireSmart funding was announced to go towards projects that will reduce the risk to communities caused by wildfire.
Forecasts are showing that fire weather severity in the western provinces of Canada will be increasing in May, and by June will be in the Extreme category in large areas of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Northwest Territories.
Conditions in June and July are expected to be well above average, according to data from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System provided by the Canadian Meteorological Centre, a branch of Environment Canada.
Alberta Wildfire is hiring 200 additional firefighters, invoking a fire ban, implementing off-highway vehicle restrictions, increasing fine violations, and funding $20 million more in community FireSmart initiatives, all to prepare for the upcoming wildfire season during COVID-19.
Alberta Parks is also instituting a fire ban in all provincial parks and protected areas.
Alberta Wildfire said these early preparedness measures will ensure the province can effectively focus resources where they are needed most in the event of multiple emergencies happening at the same time.
Typically, the wildfire hazard is highest in Alberta in late April through May, when trees and shrubs have extremely low moisture content after the snow has melted.
More than a million acres burned last year and 71 per cent of wildfires were human-caused and entirely preventable. With provincial resources currently stretched due to COVID-19, these preventative measures will better equip Alberta’s response to spring wildfires this year.
Increased firefighting resources An additional $5 million investment is being made to hire and train 200 firefighters to assist with provincial wildfire suppression this season.
More than 800 seasonal firefighters will join 370 year-round staff at Alberta Wildfire. These resources are hired at one of the 10 Forest Areas, and are moved throughout the Forest Protection Area as required.
Conversely, the five federal United States agencies with wildfire responsibilities have not announced any major new initiatives that would significantly increase the number of firefighting or fire prevention resources.
This video shows the physical fitness test, WFX-FIT, used to evaluate wildland firefighters in Alberta, Canada.
This physical fitness test looks a hellofa lot more suited to test wildland firefighters than the Pack Test used by Fed agencies in the U.S. (And don’t get me started on the Step Test that was used a couple of decades ago) https://t.co/cn1q3Z8bcD
The Pack Test version of the Work Capacity Test and the Step Test used by the Federal agencies in the United States basically measure how fast you can walk and how low you can keep your pulse rate, respectively. The Step Test was replaced by the Work Capacity Test.
The WFX-FIT used in some areas of Canada, which first saw widespread use in 2012, is described as “a valid job-related physical performance standard used to determine whether an individual possesses the physical capabilities necessary to meet the rigorous demands encountered while fighting wildland fires.” Here is a link to more information about the test.