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Rob Shaw: B.C. pushes for dedicated disaster force to fight wildfires, floods

Military can't be Ottawa's go-to response during disasters, say officials
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A firefighter at the Donnie Creek wildfire last summer.

British Columbia is throwing its support behind the idea of a national disaster response service, where specialized teams could provide expert help during particularly bad wildfires and flooding.

The idea is picking up steam after a letter Monday to the prime minister by Richard Cannings, the NDP member of Parliament for South Okanagan-West Kootenay.

“Provinces and territories bear the bulk of responsibility for fighting wildfires, but they lack the adequate resources to effectively respond to the increasing number and intensity of fires across the country and have increasingly come to rely on the military for assistance,” wrote Cannings.

“The reliance on the Canadian Armed Forces as the default option to fill gaps in an emergency is no longer workable.”

Cannings pitched “a national, civilian wildfire fighting service” with “well-trained personnel and a stockpile of equipment ready at a moment’s notice” as the best option.

Premier David Eby would like to take it a step further. He and the premiers of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Yukon discussed a federal disaster response team, with a wider scope than just wildfires, during a meeting in Whitehorse on the weekend.

“A federal body that's able to respond to these disasters was definitely canvassed at the table and it was a priority for the premiers,” he told me in an interview at the meeting.

Canadian armed forces soldiers helped provide frontline wildfire response in B.C. late last August, after fires forced evacuation orders for more than 35,000 people. Military aircraft have also been used in previous years to help evacuations.

Cannings said he penned his letter to the prime minister after hearing those military resources would not be available to respond this summer.

“I made it quite clear to other departments that our capacity to do what we did last year is not the same, especially with reduced readiness [and] increased deployments to Latvia,” Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre told senior officers during an April 23 video conference. “We’re not going to have the same forces available…for the scale and duration of response.”

He followed up last month, telling a virtual town hall of military leaders that the military should only be called in as a last resort and other branches of the federal government should be used to assist provinces.

“We are being called in way too early in many of these cases,” Eyre said, according to reporting by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese. “We take a look at last year with [our] response to wildfires — 131 days straight we were out there. Twenty-five per cent of our person-days were unemployed or under-employed. This is wickedly wasteful. So we are pushing back hard.”

The premiers aren’t super keen with the military anyway.

“There was a lot of discussion about effective use of the Canadian military,” Eby told me.

“That is really helpful when they show up when you need them because they're self-contained, they can go in and provide support directly. But lots of concern about the need for consistent training around fire and flood response, and about sufficient capacity within the military to be able to respond.”

B.C. spent more than $1 billion responding to wildfires last year, and called in mutual aid from across the world, but still was not able to keep up with the scope of the disaster at its peak.

Climate change is expected to make annual wildfires, flooding and other weather-related disasters worse in future years, sparking the need for some sort of additional plan.

Cannings said the idea for a rapid-response national wildfire service came from Dr. Mike Flannigan, who is the BC Innovation Research Chair in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science at Thompson Rivers University.

Flannigan has publicly said the province needs quicker responses to emerging wildfires than waiting days for crews from other provinces and as far as Australia and Brazil.

“I've been talking to the government for over a year now, since before last summer about this kind of idea,” said Cannings. “And I've really had a bit of a tepid response.”

He said he wrote to the prime minister to try and shake free some movement.

But it did not appear to work.

The federal public safety ministry said in a statement it had no response to the idea of a national wildfire service, when asked, and simply repeated that Canada has a mutual aid system between provinces and money available for training.

Eby said he’ll take the proposal for a larger federal response team to the meeting of all premiers in July, and try to push it to Ottawa directly. Unfortunately, by then, it will be too late for any action this summer.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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