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Ottawa turns to civilian first responders as another dire wildfire season approaches

Instead of sending in the troops to deal with what promises to be another dangerous wildfire season, Public Safety Canada is testing the capabilities of a civilian-led firefighting force as first responders and relief providers.

Emergency preparedness minister says the military is 'not the best resource to deal with a lot of emergencies'

The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023.

Instead of sending in the troops to deal with what promises to be another dangerous wildfire season, Public Safety Canada is testing the capabilities of civilian-led first responders and relief providers.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said the new program will be deployed during this wildfire season in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

Sajjan, a former defence minister, added that the Canadian Armed Forces is "not the best resource to deal with a lot of emergencies," including wildfires.

The federal government is expanding its existing Humanitarian Workforce Program — which supports non-governmental organizations responding to natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies — to support its 2024 wildfire response and other emergency services through pilot programs in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

Sajjan said the initial program focuses on those regions because of "the heightened level of risk and recent experiences in these regions."

The pilot program will involve multiple non-governmental organizations: the Canadian Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, the Salvation Army, the veteran-led Team Rubicon and the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC).

Sajjan said the Salvation Army will be responsible for providing water and non-perishable food in five high-risk areas, "to allow for a fast response if and when it is needed."

Sajjan said St. John Ambulance and the Red Cross, with their thousands of volunteers, can be called on to support northern communities. The Red Cross will have a team of 100 responders in the N.W.T. working on the logistics of evacuating communities and helping them return home.

St. John Ambulance will draw upon its pool of emergency responders, including nurses, doctors, and paramedics, to provide emergency health and psychological support services.

The Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC) told CBC News the organization will draw upon its member associations across Canada to help support firefighters near the front lines. Search and rescue volunteers will build camps for firefighters, haul hoses and transport other gear.

"There are so many other roles. If we can help with those roles, then the firefighters who do have the proper training can focus on them," said Janelle Coultes, president of SARVAC.

Sajjan said this wildfire season SARVAC has "a new mission-ready group" of about 200 volunteers that will deploy within 72 hours for up to three weeks for emergencies.

Since the Humanitarian Workforce Program was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has provided $166.9 million to various organizations that are part of the program, said Joanna Kanga, Sajjan's press secretary.

NDP calls for permanent solution

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said small municipalities don't have the capacity to respond to large natural disasters. He called on the government to adopt more permanent solutions.

"We have to place the resources to fight the fires … and then to have the emergency response capacity," Singh said. "And that means having the food, the support, the logistics for communities that are often displaced from their homes.

"All this is required, and I think we are past the stage of having a pilot project. We need to have a real plan in place for what might be another record-breaking forest fire season."

Western Canada and the North are expected to face an above-average fire risk in June, federal officials said Thursday.

While British Columbia and Alberta experienced favourable spring conditions that led to fewer wildfires and evacuations, federal officials warned the situation could change rapidly.

They added that the wildfire outlook is expected to worsen in the summer, driven by warm temperatures and drought conditions. The 2023 wildfire season broke records for the amount of land burned.

That year, the military also hit a record for consecutive days on operations supporting civilian authorities — 141 in a row.

The military's top operations commander, Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, has warned that the Armed Forces is being used too often in response to weather and wildfire crises.

Auchterlonie oversees the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), which handles all domestic and foreign deployments of troops.

In December, he told CBC that he tells provincial emergency measures organizations and federal agencies that the military should not be the first option for responding to natural disasters.

"I reinforce the message and say we are a force of last resort, [and] this is what we can provide, if necessary, in extremis," Auchterlonie said.


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca

With files from Murray Brewster

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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