Canada's forest ministers call on feds to do more in fight against wildfires

An already devastating wildfire season has prompted forest ministers across the country to call for a more national focus on battling big blazes.

Progress on national strategy has been slower and more costly than anticipated, ministers say

Flames at the front of the Fort McMurray wildfire. (Supplied)

An already devastating wildfire season has prompted forest ministers across the country to call for a more national focus on battling big blazes.

The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers has released the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: A 10-year Review and Renewed Call to Action in which they say more needs to be done.

"Recent wildfire seasons in British Columbia and the devastating situation in Fort McMurray have shown all of us that no province can go it alone when fighting wildfires," B.C. Forest Minister Steve Thomson said.

"We need a cohesive, national strategy to ensure we are all better prepared."

The original strategy came out in 2005 with three goals:

  • Resilient communities and an empowered public.
  • Healthy and productive forest ecosystems.
  • State of the art wildfire preparedness and response capability.

Innovation, prevention needed

While the goals still exist, the ministers say progress over the past 10 years has been slower and more costly than anticipated. 

"The federal, provincial and territorial governments must recommit to the strategy as partners and effectively support its continued implementation to ensure that Canada is able to meet the challenges that lie ahead," the report says.

In addition to more collaboration, the renewed strategy calls for increased investment in innovation. 

"The problems of the future will not be resolved by relying on the science of the past nor will they be resolved without focused programs in government and universities," the report says.

It also finds almost half of the wildfires seen across Canada are human-caused, so Thomson says another key focus needs to be prevention — from homeowners living in rural areas to all levels of government.

Taxpayers ultimately pay the bill

Wildfire management is technically a provincial matter though, and UBC's Dean of Forestry, John Innes, says the federal government could come back to the ministers and simply state that fact.

"But I think what we're seeing in cases like the Fort McMurray fire, the scale has gone well beyond what an individual province can cope with. So we do need to have a national response to some of these larger fires," Innes said.

The report says, on average, 7,084 wildfires have burned 2.72 million hectares annually over the past 10 years, with suppression costs at nearly $800 million each year.  

"Really it's a matter of whether or not the provinces that are better off and contributing more to the federal budget are willing to pay for some of the firefighting that's needed in those provinces that are less well off," Innes said.

He says ultimately taxpayers will be paying, whether it's federal or provincial money.