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thumb-2023-05-011-danielle-smith-wildfires This article is more than 9 months old
Analysis

Alberta’s UCP Government Has Cut Tens of Millions of Dollars From Wildfire Preparedness Programs

Danielle Smith is promising a ‘more nimble’ response to wildfires

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Speaking as wildfires rage across Alberta, United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith promised this week that the province would be “more nimble” in response to emergencies – after years of cuts to wildfire programs.

Speaking Tuesday about the government’s plan to respond to the wildfire crisis, Smith said beyond “avoidance” measures, “we’re going to have to be a lot more nimble, as we have in this case to making sure that the province steps in with its resources as soon as a fire gets out of hand.”

However, as other critics have already noted, in 2019 the United Conservative Party cut Alberta’s wildfire staffing budget and scrapped its $1.4 million Aerial Rapattack fire service team. That same budget looked to cut staff at between 15 to 30 of the province’s 127 wildfire lookout towers.

In 2018-2019, according to government estimates, Alberta’s “wildfire management,” budget was $130 million. In the 2019-2020 budget, the UCP itself boasted to the Edmonton Journal, Alberta’s wildfire management budget was $117.6 million.

And by 2022-2023, the province’s budget estimates reduced its “wildfire management” to $100.5 million. It is projected to fall again to $100.4 million in 2023-2024.

All told, that’s a $30 million cut, against rising inflation.

Parkland Institute Executive Director Ricardo Acuna says budget cuts are hampering the province’s emergency resources.

“Those are the kinds of cuts that have a direct impact on the province’s ability to detect and effectively fight wildfires,” Acuna told PressProgress.

“They eliminated the province’s elite aerial attack wildfire fighting program – which stationed 63 firefighters in key areas who were trained and prepared to rappel from helicopters into wildfires to facilitate more efficient firefighting. Bases included Edson, Fox Creek, and Lac La Biche – areas dealing with out-of-control fires this year. In that same budget, the government closed 15 wildfire lookouts meant to provide early detection of fires.”

Yesterday, Smith was asked at a press conference if she thinks the UCP government’s cuts to the Rappel Fire program under Kenney was a mistake.

“Look,” Smith said told a press conference, “Having a ten-times worse fire event from what we’ve ever seen historically is obviously going to make us analyze what it is that we need to have for baseline support.”

“We’ll have to do the assessment in future years,” Smith said.

However, the 2019-20 budget’s contingency fund for “wildfire fighting”, was around $485 million – before that, it was reduced to $76 million in 2020-21 and increased slightly to $144 in 2021-2022 and $173 million in 2022-2023.

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“Schedule 11 of the budget,” Acuna explained, aims to “report out contingency / emergency funding allocated in previous years.”

“The budget lines zero out over time as the particular programs run out,” Acuna said.

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gill McGowan said the cuts show the dangers of the UCP’s drive to “cut, cut, cut.”

“Most people understand that taxes are the way we pool the resources to pay for the services we all need, education, healthcare and firefighting services. But the leaders of the UCP are not most people,” McGowan said.

“We often don’t know how deeply conservatives have cut until we need the service in an emergency and find out it’s not there. Right now, we are finding that not only did the UCP cut funding for fire services but that they’re planning to cut it further.”

“That’s distressing.”

 

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Mitchell Thompson
Reporter
Mitchell Thompson is PressProgress’ Ontario reporter. His reporting has a special focus on workers and communities, and public services and privatization, and public accountability.

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