Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: A sustainable wildfire defence

October 30, 2023 
By Vince Mackenzie

Photo by Ludmila / Adobe Stock

This Canadian wildfire season has surely been unprecedented. Ironically, around this time last year, we were saying the same of 2022. A similar narrative played out during this record-breaking year. 

Wonder what the 2024 wildfire season will bring. We expect it not to be a lame one considering all the aspects around climate change. The volunteer and composite fire services brace for what is in store for us. Most of Canada’s urban wildland interface fire risk is bordered in communities under our jurisdictions. The smaller towns are at a higher risk of having to completely evacuate the entire town. Large cities typically evacuate in sections and are better able to house and care for evacuees locally. They also have better transportation networks to handle the volume.

Never in my over four decades long fire fighting career have I seen such destruction and abnormal fire behaviour around wildfires on a consistent basis. As wildfires erupted this year in communities from coast to coast to coast, massive destruction ensued. Entire neighbourhoods were burned down. Communities evacuated for long periods of time. Unfortunately, this now seems to be the norm.

It also seems that confusion still exists in our governments as to what the two different fire services are. Let me talk about the terms wildfire and wildland fire fighting. The words sound similiar, but they mean two different things. Wildfire is just that, a fire event we once called forest fire, brush fire, etc. Wildfires occur across Canada, and not only in the wildland (trees and vegetation), they burn buildings as well. Wildland fires are typically fires that involve forests and the like. It is when the wildfire approaches the urban interface — houses, neighbourhoods and communities — that municipal fire departments engage early in the fight.  


Structural firefighters in paid, volunteer, or composite fire departments, are not primary wildland firefighters, and vice-versa. We assist each other and work in partnerships many times, but when major events happen, the skills, tactics, and equipment needed to respond are very different. Municipal fire departments concentrate on structural protection and wildland firefighters concentrate on the fires occurring in forested areas. Rarely do you see municipal fire departments respond deep in forests. Our fire departments coordinate structural and community protection and life safety. This is where coordination in emergency management is essential, but to expand on that is a topic for another column.

This summer, the federal government approved hundreds of thousands of dollars to train wildland firefighters. The armed forces were deployed. This is all good and appreciated but is it really what our fire service needs to be effective in the future? While funding has been approved to train wildland firefighters, I fear the volunteer firefighters in Canada’s smaller communities will not receive much of this training. Instead, it will be allocated for wildland firefighters. Therefore, once again, we need to be careful of interchanging the terms wildfire fire fighting and wildland fire fighting. Our volunteer fire departments, where a high number of the interface fires occur, need better and more specific training and equipment in wildland urban interface fire fighting.    

Should there be such a heavy reliance on our military for fire emergencies and are they capable? Our military does an admirable job, but some will tell you that their training in wildfire would be very limited and usually consists of one day, mission specific assistance to get a community through the immediate crisis. We need our fire fighting forces to deploy in minutes or hours. The Canadian armed forces are more like days and weeks. 

There is already a force available in Canadian communities, look no further than your fire department. If we only had better funding for training and equipment, and I mean real sustainable funding, not knee-jerk reaction funds. We need a program that funds this specialized workforce on the long operations that wildfires in our communities demand. Volunteer firefighters in smaller communities can rarely stand up for a long-time during crisis because they also have day jobs that they must attend too. Asking volunteers firefighters to be able to deploy for long periods of time is simply not sustainable. What Canada needs is a trained force comprised of firefighters from across the country that are trained, equipped and rapidly deployable to relieve our weary hometown firefighters. This will take a new approach to traditional fire suppression models. Climate change has certainly changed the game. It’s time for of us to rethink and update our game as this new reality becomes the norm in Canada.  

Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the current president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association. Email Vince at and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince. 

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