U.S., Canada open to a 'NORAD-like' model of joint disaster response: Blair

As Canada grapples with hundreds of wildfires burning across the country, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says the federal government is looking for ways to deepen its co-operation with the United States on disaster response.

Cross-border co-operation must respect provincial responsibility, emergency preparedness minister says

A ferry passing by the Statue of Liberty shrouded in smoky haze due to the wildfires in Canada.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires was carried south to the United States this week. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says it makes sense to deepen cooperation between the two countries on disaster response. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

As Canada grapples with hundreds of wildfires burning across the country, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says the federal government is looking for ways to deepen its co-operation with the United States on disaster response.

In an interview with CBC's The House airing Saturday, Blair said he's spoken with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — America's federal disaster response force — on how to better cooperate in responding to major natural disasters.

"We've been talking about even a NORAD-like approach," he said. "Because these emergencies of wildfires, floods, earthquakes, emergencies writ large and all hazards — they're borderless."

That was made obvious this week when dangerous wildfire smoke from intense fires in central Canada drifted south over Ottawa and Toronto to the east coast of the United States.

Blair did not say whether deeper co-operation might meant the creation of a new cross-border agency or an organization similar to NORAD, or a different sort of cooperative framework altogether. NORAD is the Canada/U.S. joint military aerospace defence command, which patrols North American airspace and has operations facilities in both countries.

"I think we have to really work with them and think through how [greater co-operation] might be structured," Blair said, adding American officials are "quite open" to a NORAD-style approach.

He did note that work is underway to align existing firefighting coordination organizations such as the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre and its American counterpart, the National Interagency Fire Center.

A man in a suit speaks in front of Canadian flags at a microphone.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair speaks while delivering an update on the 2023 wildfire season on Thursday, June 1, 2023 in Ottawa. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

There is currently no Canadian counterpart for FEMA itself. The Canadian Press reported this week that discussions underway on developing a new federal approach to disaster relief are looking at the possibility of a dedicated emergency response force.

"We have explored the possibility of establishing a civil defence force that exists in many countries, or National Guard as they [have] in the United States," Blair said.

"But quite frankly, because of the way our constitutional federation exists and the authorities and responsibilities of the provinces, we have to work in collaboration with the provinces — who do a great job, by the way."

Blair said repeatedly that any increase in federal participation — or American involvement — in disaster relief would come through consultation and co-operation with provinces and territories.

"That's not to suggest that we would necessarily cede any of our responsibility, because in this country it is primarily the provinces and territories and local authorities that respond in the first instance to an emergency," he said. "But building a greater collaboration between us, I think, makes perfect sense and that that's what we're talking about."

Canada’s on track for its worst wildfire season ever. President of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs Ken McMullen and UBC professor and forestry expert Lori Daniels discuss what steps Canada could take right now to fight future blazes. Then Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair reveals that Canada is considering deeper cross-border cooperation with the United States to tackle climate-related emergencies.

Firefighters busy across the country

Part of the impetus behind the call for a federal disaster force is Canada's ongoing reliance on the military to help fight natural disasters and clean up afterward. Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff, has warned that the burden on the military is straining its ability to fulfil its core responsibilities.

The vast majority of Canada's firefighters are also volunteers and the enduring nature of the current fire season is wearing on them.

"It's not sustainable," said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

A wildfire with gray smoke burns through hectares of evergreen trees.
The West Kiskatinaw River wildfire in northeastern B.C. on June 7, 2023. (B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter)

The volunteer model has worked well for centuries, said McMullen, but it wasn't designed for prolonged situations. He points to the situation in Alberta, where fires have been burning for over a month.

"Volunteers have walked away from their self-employment, their other employment or their roles and responsibilities as a family member for 37 days," said McMullen, who is also a fire chief in Red Deer, Alta.

"[It's] not the way that the program is designed and certainly not sustainable."

Blair said the dependence on volunteers is "simply a reality in this country," and praised them for doing an extraordinary job under challenging circumstances. He also noted that the federal government has committed to training 1,000 new firefighters across the country.

The Conservative opposition has criticized the federal government's response to the fires so far. It has called for better co-operation across the country and investments in fire management equipment like water bombers.

"I think it's an absolute abdication of responsibility for the federal government to go, 'Oh, this is a big surprise, we don't have a plan,'" said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner this week.


Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press