How Canada should manage escalating wildfires

by Ron Hartling

Whether or not you believe statements to the effect that the Canada’s summer 2003 smoke emergency was not predictable (it was), it is obviously becoming our new reality Major wildfires severely ramp up our carbon emissions, thereby worsening the underlying causes of the fires in a classic positive-feedback loop. Kingston’s 203 average PM2.5 level was far and away the worst in at least the past decade (see the table in our Evidence page) and shot up to quite hazardous levels at the peak of the wildfire season (see the four-year comparative chart in our 2023 Summary page).

Wildfires must be seen and acted upon as a federal problem requiring a national solution.  Constitutionally, federal jurisdiction has always been defined as matters which cross provincial boundaries (e.g., railways; waterways; air travel, telecommunications). Toxic smoke respects no boundaries and voters here in Kingston, have no influence on the resources that the governments of Quebec and Alberta, for example, chose to invest or not into forest firefighting, yet we pay the price in terms of our health and well-being. Federal responsibility for a national solution is therefore a classic no-brainer.

For a real solution, we voters must demand in no uncertain terms that the federal government act immediately to prevent this repeating in future years by hiring, training and equipping a world-class cadre of firefighters to be ready and sufficient to supress most wildfires before they can spread. We need to inform our elected representatives in no uncertain terms that their current preoccupation with self-interested political gamesmanship will no longer be tolerated. If they fail to come together to provide real leadership, we must demonstrate that we are ready to replace them with people who we can trust to put our and our families’ health and well-being above their petty squabbles. A mere 0.5% income tax hike would cover an initial $2 billion budget. Most Canadians would consider that a bargain and should accept no excuses.

A federal firefighting agency could be based in Alberta, which had just such a program, named “Rapattack”.  Their 63 professional firefighters were trained to rappel down from helicopters to douse wildfires while they still only covered a few hectares. They extinguished small fires before they could merge and cleared landing spaces for other helicopters to bring in crews and gear. Demonstrating his usual wisdom and foresight, then-Premier Jason Kenny terminated that program in 2019 in order to save $1.4 million, this despite the devastating Fort McMurray fire three years previously having cost some $9 billion. Hopefully enough of that trained group are still around and interested to serve as the nucleus for a new national service.