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MP Cannings calls for national wildfire force

A local MP says the federal government needs to get more involved in preparing for and responding to wildfires across the country.

South Okanagan-West Kootenay New Democrat Richard Cannings spoke to the House of Commons Monday night during an emergency debate he requested.

He said it was critical for MPs to address the matter following “horrific” wildfires this year in Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Quebec.

“In each case the provincial and municipal governments were really overwhelmed by the scale of these fires,” he said.

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“We have to rethink our federal response to wildfires. Wildfires are generally a provincial responsibility, but as these fires get bigger and bigger and more catastrophic, there’s a role the federal government should be playing.”

Cannings said he asked for the emergency debate because the forest fire season hasn’t even begun in earnest, and already the area burned is significantly above average.

With the blessing of the speaker of the house, eight MPs from all parties spoke on the subject from 10 p.m. to midnight on Monday.

Although referred to as a debate, Cannings said discussions around disasters such as hurricanes, fires or floods tend not be non-partisan and non-adversarial as everyone realizes the urgency of the matter.

Cannings led off and proposed the federal government take on a new or enhanced role in training professional firefighters who could be deployed to different parts of Canada as needed.

He also said the country needs a mobile supply of firefighting equipment, as some provinces like Nova Scotia, which are not used to facing large-scale wildfires, don’t have enough of their own.

“So we need to have that equipment available and these teams in place in areas before the wildfire crisis develops,” Cannings said in an interview.

He added that equipment and personnel could be positioned in hot and dry areas where the fire risk is high, but before fires actually begin.

He said additional work needs to be done throughout the year to make neighbourhoods more resilient to wildfires and to thin forests on the edge of municipalities to prevent catastrophic fires such as those that burned Fort McMurray and Lytton.

“That is essential work and it takes a lot of money,” Cannings said. “That’s one ability the federal government has over other levels of government.”

He said several other MPs including Blake Desjarlais from Albert and Rick Perkins of Nova Scotia gave “moving speeches” about what they have witnessed this year in their constituencies, including mass evacuations and the loss of homes.

While the government provided no specific response to Canning’s proposals, two Liberal MPs did outline steps presently being taken.

“Which is good to hear. It’s good to know what different agencies can do and have been doing. My role is to present options for them to think about, doing things differently or better.”

Cannings said firefighting increasingly requires international co-ordination. He was in Chile in March as the country faced its worst forest fire season. Canadian personnel and equipment were there helping out.

“Now we’re seeing crews from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France coming to Canada to help. That’s an obvious exchange that can and should happen, especially when you have southern hemisphere countries where their fire season is not synchronous with ours.

“That’s another good reason we should develop a Canadian firefighting force that we can send to other countries in return from them helping us out.”

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