Fire Fighting in Canada

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Let’s talk about the weather

August 19, 2022 
By Tina Saryeddine

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, in 2021 Canada’s top 10 weather events were each the most severe in their class for the past 70 years. The heat dome in British Columbia resulted in over 600 deaths, 52,000 calls to 9-1-1, eight to 12-hour ambulance waits, and the destruction of critical infrastructure. The floods that followed were the equivalent of seven atmospheric rivers (i.e., Amazon River discharge), 90 km/hour winds and power outages. Last summer’s more than 2500 wildfires resulted in over 50,000 evacuations, poor air quality, hours of smoke, and infrastructure damage. Arctic blasts with temperatures between -45 and -55 degrees celsius were 20 degrees below normal, with deadly consequences for the homeless and the disadvantaged. The prairies were 99 per cent drought land with the worst water shortage in history.   

It is not surprising then that Budget 2022 and the mandate letters of several federal ministers, contained important commitments for wildfire and climate adaptation writ large. The First Ministers Forest Fire Roundtables sought to inform a whole of society approach to wildfire prevention, mitigation, response and recovery. Its current action plan includes understanding the Wildfire Urban Interface Risk, prioritizing prevention and mitigation, strengthening recovery, and advancing the next generation of wildland fire management science and technology. 

Stakeholders spoke to the importance of Indigenous participation and leadership, a serious problem of discrimination against Indigenous firefighters and wildfire management practices, wildfire adaptation issues, partnerships, data, achieving quick wins, cost risk trade-offs, and the importance of the FireSmart program being implemented in communities.  Other areas of focus include wildland fire management and healthy forests, and building resilient communities as well as financial instruments that support the process. The CAFC is now in discussions on several of these issues with leadership and support from its newly established Climate committee. 

Public Safety Canada also conducted a Let’s Talk: critical infrastructure consultation on the way it approaches critical infrastructure in Canada. Critical infrastructure is defined as the infrastructure that would need to be maintained in order for society not to experience a major disruption during a disaster like a climate emergency. The consultation draft noted that up to 40 per cent of Canada’s critical infrastructure assets are in poor condition. 


CAFC’s comments focused on a few key themes. First, that disasters are often a matter of local capacity. Second, that given the primacy of local factors, there are methods, resources and capacity that can be spread and scaled nationally. Third, that we must consider the co-occurrence of events, the interconnectedness of actors, the complexity of situations, and the newness or familiarity with the situation that will impact critical infrastructure resilience. Fourth, that modern critical infrastructure considerations involve innovation, and innovation requires new public safety considerations. Fifth, that special considerations for critical infrastructure are needed in our Northern and Indigenous communities.  

On the last item, CAFC president John McKearney noted to the House of Commons standing Committee on North and Indigenous Affairs that “Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, provides a reasonable starting point for addressing severe disparities and inequities in the north, impacting primarily Indigenous Peoples…However, unless we missed it, there was nothing at all on fire or on how mitigation, response or preparedness for emergencies or fire situations would occur.”  

Finally, and perhaps the highest profile of the “Let’s Talk” consultation series is the National Adaptation Strategy, which was circulated by the federal government for comment in the summer of 2022. The strategy had proposed a principle of “reallocating funding from response to mitigation and preparedness”. 

While the importance of mitigation and preparedness is clear, the CAFC noted that the fire and emergency system is already under-funded in its response capacity. 

“Many cities and towns rely on volunteer firefighters who themselves may be fundraising for equipment. This reallocation principle, is akin to shutting down a hospital emergency department because a public health measure was put in place. Emergencies happen. We need to modernize our response capacity, not re-allocate its funding capacity.”

Tina Saryeddine, MHA, CHE, PhD is Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and an adjunct faculty member at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa. 

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