Alberta's re-elected UCP government intends to hire out-of-province arson investigators following an uncharacteristically destructive wildfire season allegedly worsened by arson.
Reports emerged that arson caused some of the blazes.
"I think you're watching as I am the number of stories about arson," Smith said on a podcast on Thursday. "I'm very concerned that there are arsonists, and there have been stories as well that we're investigating, and we're bringing in arson investigators from outside the province."
"We have almost 175 fires with no known cause at the moment," she claimed, calling it "unusual" for this many fires to have no known cause.
A June 3 media report attributed 'people' as the cause of nearly 300 wildfires.
As of that report, more than 38,000 Albertans fled their homes under duress from local evacuation orders, according to Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis. Of that, 4,200 evacuees remain under evacuation due to out-of-control wildfires.
According to provincial data, 2,600 firefighters have responded to over 560 wildfires that have burned 1,180,000 hectares of land.
"The most area burned for an entire wildfire season was 1.3 million hectares in 1981," said Alberta Wildfire Official Christie Tucker when comparing the abnormal intensity of this year's fire season.
Ellis concurred the wildfire situation remains serious. Seventy-six wildfires are burning in Alberta's forest protection area, with 23 considered out of control.
A week after Premier Danielle Smith dropped the writ last month, the province declared a provincial state of emergency as the wildfires reached a crisis point.
On May 7, Alberta had 109 active wildfires in the Forest Protection Area, with 28 classified as out of control. The province declared 18 local states of emergency, with over 24,000 people evacuated.
Another 52,000 remained under an active evacuation alert.
At the time, firefighters received relevant on-the-job training, with one controlled blaze burning out of control in Banff National Park.
On May 3, a prescribed burn blazed out of control in the area during Canada's first-ever Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX). Thirty-five applicants were on site for training "with diversity and inclusion goals in mind."
Canada Parks said firefighters, with the assistance of five helicopters, contained the fire three hectares outside the prescribed burn area. "Around 1600, due to an unexpected shift in wind direction and speed, the fire escaped the predetermined boundary," said the federal agency.
In the coming days, Smith activated the Emergency Management Cabinet Committee in response to a province-wide crisis, committing to daily technical briefings until its resolution.
Rebel News asked the Alberta government about the burning exercise amid a fire ban, a prohibition on off-road vehicles, and several declared states of local emergency.
"Prescribed burns are traditionally held earlier in the spring, where we can remove built-up fuels that could be used to draw a wildfire to [a populated area]," said Tucker. "It's a very common practice."
The official told Rebel it achieved several objectives, including mitigating wildfire risk in the Banff and Canmore area. However, they did not comment on the "appropriateness" of this particular exercise amid unpredictable weather conditions.
"We have the resources in place to protect Albertans' health, safety, and well-being without the extraordinary powers of the Emergency Management Act," Ellis told reporters.
The UCP had $1.5 billion in contingency for emergency management to spend on supporting affected residents. How much the Alberta government spent from that budget to counter the wildfires is still being determined.
Smith said the province must build better fireguards to reduce the risk of forest fires entering residential areas and cities.
In November 2019, the UCP scrapped its $1.4 million Aerial Rapattack fire service team, 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.
Smith contends Alberta Wildfire did a 'good job' working with communities this year to accelerate fire guard prevention.
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.
"We're going to have forest fires. It's the nature of what we have in Alberta," said Smith. "And it's our job as government to make sure that we mitigate, manage, and have the resources available when they erupt."
The Alberta NDP also 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.
Then premier Rachel Notley stressed that her government mobilized as many air tankers and helicopters over the community as "logistically possible." The governing NDP cut provincial tanker contracts by $5.1 million that year.
On May 16, Notley did not respond to a Rebel inquiry asking if she regretted the cuts to wildfire management in 2016. Her government cut $9.6 million in base funding for wildfire management that year.
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.