Provincial Wildfire Policy - has been it upgraded after last year's major fire in the Island Lakes area?
Friday May 11, I asked Minister Squires whether the government's approach to fighting forest fires had changed following what happened last year when a small fire was not immediately addressed and it spread to threaten Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point. Sadly, though the Minister talked at length about the government's approach, it was disappointing that she did not specifically answer the question I asked.
Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): I have a limited amount of time, so if the minister can try and keep the answers as short and focused as possible it would be helpful in getting as many questions as we can.
My first question has to do with the approach to forest fires. Last year we saw the big forest fires around Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point. And I visited there.
I've talked with people who were on the ground at the time. It was very clear that this started out as a small fire not far from the communities and that with a focused effort early on that fall–small fire could have been put out long before it became the really dangerous and huge and problematic fire which required huge numbers of people to be evacuated. It clearly points to a need for a change, a change in being able to put out small fires, but also a change in making sure that First Nations communities as well as other communities are well prepared.
We saw the circumstances of a number of homes being burned in Little Saskatchewan quite recently, and I think that also highlights this, so I'd be interested in the minister's update on the approach to forest fires.
Ms. Squires: It is a really good question that member opposite asks about the Wildfire Program in the province of Manitoba, and as he's well aware, the way we're fighting wildfires today is remarkably different from the way we were fighting wildfires even a decade ago, or two decades ago, in the sense that the scope and the scale and the time-season of firefighting has expanded beyond anything we've ever seen.
In fact, last year one of the directors involved in the Wildfire Program certainly thought we were done for the season and that we were done fighting wildfires for the year.
And then some major fires, including the ones that the members opposite had mentioned, erupted, and we were fighting those fires later in the year than ever before.
We were still fire–fighting fires last year in October, and we know that the wildfires and the pattern of wildfires and the increase in wildfires is definitely a direct correlation to climate change. And in the previous question about, you know, how we're restructuring to adapt to climate change, well, fighting wildfires certainly comes into play because we’re on the ground fighting these fires a lot longer than ever before.
And this year our team has done a remarkable job, and I really want to give a shout-out to Gary Friesen, who is the director of the Wildfire Program, and his entire team. They have staffed up in–just overnight to fight some of the fires that we're dealing with right now.
And, you know, my thoughts and prayers are with the entire team every day as they're going out to battle these fires.
We know that this is tremendously important work, but it's also very dangerous work, and unfortunately, as we saw last week, there were two deaths associated with a wildfire or linked to a wildfire, and that's a reminder to all of us that these wildfires can become escalated in a very, very short period of time.
This year, so far, we've had 60 wildfires that we have been fighting, which I think might be a record for this time of year, and it's certainly putting our resources to the test. And I can say, by and large, our team is responding to that admirably.
We do have 35 extra firefighters that are working right now on various fires throughout the province, and that also includes 10 helicopters and five water bombs, but–water bombers, pardon me. But, as the member had asked about, like, how are we modernizing our firefighting resources and making sure that they are responding to fires in an adequate way in a timely basis.
And what we're doing is moving towards a more provincial focus in and less regional driven, so that we don't have regions specifically just tasked with fighting fires in their region, that a firefighter in Manitoba, who's part of our wildfire firefighting program, would be working for all of Manitoba and not just a specific region, and would be deployed and redeployed where it's needed.
We are working to enhance our employment of First Nations communities on First Nations–in First Nations communities so that we can, for one thing, provide more economic resources and jobs for those communities that are often remote and where there aren't plentiful jobs to go around in those communities in the first place.
But we really do think that the way we need to work is more collaboratively with our indigenous partners at fighting fires, and that is something that our department–and I want to commend our Deputy Minister, Rob Olson, for the work that he's doing in leading up a bit of a modernization strategy for fighting fires, so that we can provide the right response at the right time, and really be working with one plan, one centralized directive, and being able to respond quicker and faster and in a way that is more appropriate and also includes the indigenous communities to work side by side with us and be part of us and part of our strategy.