Alberta NDP, UCP both cut millions from wildfire management

According to several accosted budgetary documents and media reports, a series of NDP and UCP government cutbacks damaged Alberta Wildfire's ability to prevent and respond to wildfires.

Alberta NDP, UCP both cut millions from wildfire management
The Canadian Press / Jason Franson
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The Alberta NDP first cut $15 million from the wildfire management portfolio in Budget 2016/17, tabled April 14 that year — mere weeks before a devastating wildfire decimated several Fort McMurray neighbourhoods, including 1,800 family homes.

Alberta came out of "the busiest fire season in 25 years," then the governing NDP cut provincial tanker contracts by $5.1 million and base funding for wildfire management by $9.6 million.

At the time, premier Rachel Notley stressed her government mobilized as many air tankers and helicopters over the community as "logistically possible."

However, then Wildrose leader Brian Jean raised concerns about the cuts and their possible impact on Alberta Wildfire, preventing and responding to the out-of-control blaze.

On Tuesday, Rebel News attempted to ask Notley if she regretted the cuts to wildfire management in 2016. Unsurprisingly, she ignored the inquiry. 

An assessment in 2017 on the total financial impact of the fire constituted $9.9 billion to replace buildings and infrastructure, including the cost of lost income, profits and royalties in the oil sands and forestry industries, according to BNN Bloomberg.

Insurers estimated a $3.7 billion payout for damage caused by the blaze, which firefighters called "the beast."

Three years later, the UCP under Premier Jason Kenney deepened those cuts in Budget 2018/19, despite concerns about the severity of Alberta's 2019 wildfire season, especially in the Chuckegg Creek and McMillan region.

The UCP scrapped its $1.4 million Aerial Rapattack fire service team in November 2019, cutting staff from 15 to 30 of the province's 127 wildfire lookout towers. They also decommissioned 26 fire towers, including those in Edson, Fox Creek, and Lac La Biche — areas dealing with out-of-control fires this year.

According to government estimates, Alberta's "wildfire management" budget for 2018/19 was $130 million. The following fiscal year, the province cut Alberta's wildfire management budget to $117.6 million.

Press Progress reported that Budget 2022/23 estimates more "wildfire management" rollbacks to $100.5 million. It is projected to fall again to $100.4 million in 2023/24, constituting a $30 million cut since the UCP formed the government.

In Alberta, natural disasters such as fires and floods are paid for with emergency funds. While Budget 2018/19 did not factor in a particularly severe wildfire year, Premier Danielle Smith pledged unfettered access to $1.5 billion in emergency contingency funds in the event of a natural disaster.

On May 6, Smith declared a state of emergency so the province could access emergency discretionary funds and mobilize additional support for impacted Albertans.

"Under the Emergency Management Act, the declaration gives the government greater powers to respond to extreme situations," she told reporters, adding the province did not take this step lightly. However, Smith lauded this as the "quickest" and "most effective" response to counter the wildfires.

The contingency fund for "wildfire fighting" in Budget 2019/20 was around $485 million, then reduced to $76 million in 2020/21. It increased slightly in subsequent fiscal years to $144 in 2021/22 and $173 million in 2022/23.

"I met briefly [Sunday] morning with Danielle Smith and offered my insights and experience from the 2016 Fort McMurray fire," said Notley in a May 7 statement. "We want to assure folks that, regardless of the election, the government [will] work hard to have their backs in this difficult time."

As of 6 p.m. on May 7, there were 109 active wildfires in the Forest Protection Area, and 28 were out of control, including 18 states of emergency in effect across the province, with over 24,000 people evacuated. Another 52,000 remained under an evacuation alert.

As of 5:30 p.m. on May 19, there are 91 active wildfires in the Forest Protection Area, including 19 states of emergency in effect across the province, with 10,523

people evacuated. 

"We'll spend whatever it takes [to get affected residents the support they need]," said Smith of the $1.5 billion contingency for emergency management. "The safety of Albertans remains the number one priority as officials direct resources to incidents that directly threaten human life." 

On Monday, Notley pledged to restore the Rapattack program that once employed 63 firefighters across the province to fight wildfires to prevent them from blazing out of control.

On May 10, a reporter asked Smith if she thought the UCP government's cuts to the Rappel Fire program under Kenney were a mistake.

"Having a ten-times worse fire event from what we've ever seen historically is going to make us analyze what it is that we need to have for baseline support," she replied. "We'll have to [assess] in future years." 

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  • By Ezra Levant

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