Broten calls for full inquiry on forest fires

NDP Leader also proposes immediate actions

With the immediate threat to northern communities averted thanks to the hard work of fire crews, and with most evacuees returned home, Saskatchewan’s New Democrats are calling for a full forest fire inquiry to address the many concerns raised by northern leaders and community members.

“Over the last month, I've visited the northern fire zone several times and I've heard a lot of frustration about the deep cuts to forest firefighting resources, about policies that are too rigid and restrictive, about the lack of collaboration with First Nations and northern leaders, and even about the lack of basic information shared with those leaders and evacuees,” said NDP Leader Cam Broten. “I want to see a full, independent review to ensure the appropriate lessons are learned from this experience, and to deliver a much better approach to forest fires going forward.”

Broten said the review must be independent, led by experts appointed in consultation with First Nations and northern leaders, to prevent it from becoming a public relations exercise for the government.

“We're incredibly relieved there was no loss of life, but there has been a tremendous toll on all affected families and communities and I know they have many questions,” said Broten. “What role did all the cuts and shrinking resources have in allowing these forest fires to get so out of control? Why weren’t enough people put on the front lines sooner? Why was there so little collaboration with First Nations that wanted to help house evacuees? Why was information not shared more readily? These are the kinds of questions many northern leaders and community members are asking, and they deserve answers.”

In the 2009-10 budget year, Saskatchewan’s budget for fighting wildfires was $102 million. The government has reduced it annually, allocating just $55 million this year.

Overall, the Sask. Party government has also cut the number of full-time equivalent employees in the Ministry of Environment about 17 per cent since that year. In 2012, the government cut each forest firefighting team to four members from five, resulting in a loss of 38 firefighters. The government also terminated about 40 experienced fire spotters, taking down their towers, and replacing them with experimental cameras.

Former community leaders say in previous decades there were more than 2,000 northern firefighters trained and ready to combat fires, but there were only a fraction of that many prepared for this fire season.

“The top concern I’ve heard from northern leaders and community members – including many with extensive experience fighting forest fires – is about the cuts to vital resources. That’s frustrating, because trying to save money by failing to be ready for fire season ends up costing much more,” said Broten. “The independent review should dig into the effects of these cuts, and the provincial government should get to work reversing them.”

The NDP also wants the inquiry to focus on the government’s policies. Many northern leaders and community members have expressed frustration with the zoning system the Sask. Party nicknamed the “let it burn” policy. NDP MLAs Buckley Belanger and Doyle Vermette have repeatedly called for a review and revamp of this policy over the last two years, and presented petitions from many northerners, but the Sask. Party government has dismissed their concerns.

While Broten expects the inquiry to lead to recommendations for many changes to policy and changes to the resources allocated, he’s also pushing for immediate actions:

  • A joint strategy with northern leadership, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Tribal Councils, First Nations and the Métis Nation to hire and train many more firefighters.

  • A formalized partnership for First Nations to be involved in providing shelters and other vital services during future evacuations.

  • An improved communications protocol to ensure accurate, timely information is available to local leadership, including mayors, First Nations leaders, the local MLAs, and all evacuees.

  • Adjustments to the Provincial Disaster Assistance Program (PDAP) to make it as responsive and fair as possible for those affected by forest fires. In Manitoba, for example, their disaster assistance program was amended to include a provision for trappers’ cabins.