RMs force change to wildfire act

by Gaven Crites

The provincial government’s new Wildfire Act is moving forward – minus a controversial condition which would have seen RMs responsible for the cost of fighting wildfires within a 4.5-kilometre burning permit area on privately owned and occupied Crown land in their jurisdiction.

The condition drew sharp criticism from members of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM).
Recently, RM of Meadow Lake reeve Rodger Zuchotzki received a call from environment minister Ken Cheveldayoff expressing the government was backing off the proposed change.

“He got a rude awakening when we met recently with our SARM delegates in Prince Albert,” Zuchotzki said. “It is something that should not be burdened on the municipalities. It’s something that is a provincial jurisdiction.”

Zuchotzki added there are huge costs associated with fighting forest fires and it’s unreasonable for RMs to have to pick up the tab.

“I respect the minister’s thoughts because there is a huge cost to fighting fires,” he said. “We could get the resources, but the thing of it is, it’s not all our ratepayers’ responsibility to fight all the fires and be responsible for all the costs…with only minimal tax revenue they have to deal with. No municipalities can handle that financial load.”

Steve Roberts, executive director of the wildfire management branch, said the government will maintain the status quo with respect to the “burning permit area” issue when it tables the legislation sometime in the fall.

“That means we would be the primary responder in that 4.5-kilometre (burning permit area), but it is RM land, and RMs have some responsibilities in managing fire bans, burning permits, access…and they’re still responsible for structural fire protection,” Roberts said. “Government decided that one component, which was causing SARM concern, has been removed.”

The decision to maintain the status quo is good news to RM of Loon Lake reeve Bob Gristwood.

“One wildfire would kill an RM (financially),” Gristwood said. “Cheveldayoff called all the RM reeves and said he wanted to tell us personally that it’s going to be revisited and there would be more consultation with the municipalities. This is really good news because if the RM were to fight one of these fires, and it got out of hand and spread somewhere else, the RM would still be responsible.”

Other parts of the act deal with streamlining the fire ban process and increasing legislation around what industry needs to do to prevent wildfires. Now in the final consultation phase, the government is working closely with a variety of stakeholder groups in crafting the legislation and setting up best practice codes and standards.

“The issue that’s clear is that’s why we consult legislation – to hear what people have to say and hear their concerns,” Roberts said. “If government thinks that feedback makes a lot of sense, government responds to that feedback before (the legislation) goes forward.”

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