Trina Moyles is the author of Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest, and the Globe and Mail published this excellent opinion piece by Moyles last week, titled Alberta had one of the best wildfire programs in the world. Budget cuts have left the province at risk.
“I worked for Alberta Wildfire for seven years as a lookout observer,” she writes, “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.”
Her detailed op-ed explains, from her perspective, what happened to a stellar fire detection and suppression system, and how Alberta now finds itself understaffed, underfunded, and underequipped. “In the world of wildfire management, experience matters,” she says. “Experience is what keeps communities safe from wildfires and firefighters safe on the fireline. Experience results in a faster, more efficient delivery of wildfire detection, assessment, and management. Experience can be achieved only in a system where people feel valued and fairly compensated, and have the opportunity to learn and grow within the organization.”
Her descriptions of Alberta fire crews sound nearly identical to descriptions of fire crews in the western U.S. — up to and including budget woes.
“A series of government cutbacks and defunding, however, has seriously damaged Alberta Wildfire’s ability to prevent and respond to wildfires,” she writes. “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 rappel 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.”
Read Moyles’ opinion piece in the Globe and Mail — it’s well worth a read. And don’t miss the 50+ comments. Earlier in May, she wrote ‘We are a skeleton crew out here’: UCP cuts led to disastrous Alberta wildfire situation.