Public consultations on Wildfire Act heats up

by Phil Ambroziak

Some burning questions were posed during a recent public consultation on the proposed new provincial Wildfire Act.

Close to 40 concerned residents and officials from rural municipalities across the region attended the session – which was held June 7 at the Lutheran Church Hall in Meadow Lake – for an overview of the new act.

“The current legislation (known as the Prairie and Forest Fires Act) was developed in the 1940s and ‘50s with its most recent major amendment made in 1982,” explained Del Phillips, an operational forest protection analyst with the provincial Ministry of Environment.

If passed, the new act would see responsibility for existing burning permit areas change hands from the province to the RMs. As currently defined, a burning permit area includes a provincial forest and every quarter section of land lying wholly or partly within 4.5 kilometres of the boundaries of the provincial forest. This includes privately owned and occupied crown land.

“At one time there was a huge agriculture push, resulting in a lot of the fringe area (of the forests) being cleared, piled and burned,” Phillips said. “It was also a time when the forest industry was starting to become more economically viable. This area was used as a protection buffer, but that rationale is not there any more, so this area will revert back to RM authority. The ministry, however, will retain responsibility for provincial forests entering into RM lands.”

Sharon Hodgson, a councillor with the RM of Beaver River, expressed her concern about potential costs.

“I’m wondering if any of the other RMs feel the same about the financial impact this could have?” she asked. “It would only take one big fire. Would we be billed for those (provincial) resources?”

According to Daryl Jessop, a manager of wildfire support with the MOE, when the ministry provides fire assistance, there is a mechanism to bill for operational costs.

“With that in mind, however, the government is not going to stand back and watch a municipality go bankrupt,” he said.

Murray Rausch, reeve for the RM of Beaver River, asked how much detail was factored in when deciding to put the burning permit areas in the hands of the RMs.

“In terms of consistency, do you find it hard to be consistent when the northern part of the province is primarily boreal forest while the southern part is primarily grassland?” Rausch asked. “It’s one thing to have the equipment to access grasslands, but there could be some problems (for RMs) when it comes to accessing boreal forests. To my knowledge, there’s not a lot of helicopters or water bombers in the RM fleets.”

Further consultations will take place in the next few months between the MOE, the RMs and industry. This will be followed by a development and review process. Phillips said the MOE hopes to see the new act implemented by next spring.

“We’ve had a number of close calls in Saskatchewan,” he said, citing the Crutwell fire west of Prince Albert in 2002, as well as a fire 10 years ago at the Pine Cove resort north of Loon Lake among others. “We have been more fortunate than other communities, but major wildfires are occurring more and more because of several reasons including climate change and years of fire suppression. Fire also has a role to play, so the increasing fuel loads on the landscape is going to result in more erratic fire behaviour.”

Phillips went on to state, when the MOE started writing the new act, one overall principle was looked at to guide its development – responsibility for the prevention of wildfires should be equally shared by individuals, industry, municipalities and the crown.

“One of the most important aspects is recognizing close to 50 per cent of wildfires are caused by humans – and that’s preventible,” Phillips said.

According to the MOE, development within the wildland urban interface (areas where structures and communities meet the forest) is increasing at a significant pace, and the consequences of wildfires within these areas are often severe. As a result, the new proposed act calls for the use of non or low-combustible building materials on structures; the management of vegetation around structures; keeping combustibles away from structures and reducing density of surrounding forest.

“The ministry has been campaigning for people to make their properties fire smart, but these efforts have met with little success,” Phillips continued. “That’s why it’s been decided to make it part of the legislation.”

Another change would see the change from a burning permit system to a burning notification system.

“Currently, you can’t start a fire in this area without a permit from the MOE,” Phillips noted. “Many municipalities also require burning permits often resulting in the need for two separate permits, some of which have different conditions. With the new system, individuals wishing to burn would only need to phone one of our offices and receive authorization.”

As for industrial/commercial operations, the act proposes to administer these operations under a results-based regulatory framework.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to reduce the number of man-caused fires,” Phillips said.

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