Proposed changes to wildfire act cause heated debate

Proposed changes to wildfire act cause heated debate

18 April 2013

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USA — There was heated debate at the legislature on Wednesday as proposed changes to the Prairie and Forest Fires Act were discussed during question period.

The act was updated in 1982, but is still one of the oldest legislations on wildfires in Canada. Because of this, the government feels a rewrite of the act is needed.

The new act would be called The Wildfire Act. One change hotly debated at the legislature was rural municipalities being responsible for the wildfires in their burning radius of 4.5 kilometres. If the RMs don’t have the ability to handle the fire, the government would come in and handle it but would later bill the RM for the cost.

“Protecting the provinces forests requires cooperation with communities in and around the North. That’s why it’s so disconcerting for people living in the forest fringe communities to see the Sask Party government propose a new wildfires act that leaves it up to RMs to fight wildfires with limited access to the forested land and tax dollars,” said Cathy Sproule, Saskatoon-Nutana NDP environment critic.

The province has a responsibility to protect communities, industries and people against the potential damage of fires, she said.

“Under the proposed wildfire act, municipalities and their local volunteer firefighters could be left fighting fires with limited resources and equipment potentially bankrupting the RM,” she continued.

She went on to ask why the Sask Party Government would tell these municipalities “that they are now responsible for fighting wildfires.”

Ken Cheveldayoff, the minister responsible for the environment, said fighting fires and keeping residents safe is a priority for the government.

“We will continue to (protect) with the resources of the Government of Saskatchewan. We ask the municipalities to participate in that. They have done that under members opposite when they were in government and (municipalities) continue to do it today. We will continue to use technology and to look at the best ways of fighting fires in northern Saskatchewan. We’ll continue to ask the municipalities to participate,” Cheveldayoff said.

He said right now they are consulting with the municipalities and once that consultation process is finished they will bring legislation to the assembly to ensure a good record is continued.

Climate change predictions show an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires, said Sproule.

“Given that the province knows that the potential threat of fires is increasing, this makes no sense,” she said.

“Why is the ministry, through the proposed wildfire act, already telling municipalities they’ll be forced to absorb all the costs for fighting wildfires?” she asked.

Cheveldayoff responded by saying, “With all due respect, the member opposite has her information wrong. We are not asking municipalities to fund the entire operation. Certainly there have been joint funding arrangements in the past. We have asked municipalities to do their share. They have done that time and time again.”

Sproule then pointed out that while the ministry continues to say they will help rural municipalities fight wildfires, their website says they will only do so on a cost recovery basis.

“It’s the ministry’s way of dealing with the disastrous effects of fire and is clearly different then how the province deals with other disasters such as flooding or grass fires. Rural municipalities have been speaking out about the proposed downloading of wildfire protection costs onto their rate payers,” she said.

“SARM debated a resolution at their 2012 mid-term convention, following resolutions and discussions raised in the RMs of Prince Albert, Buckland, Lakeland and Beaver River. But so far there has been no indication from the minister that the act won’t contain this downloading of costs,” she continued.

She went on to ask why the minister won’t listen to the RMs and asked if he would commit today to change the proposed legislation to ensure it doesn’t download unmanageable costs onto the RMs.

“Cost recovery is a responsible way to administer firefighting in the north and across Saskatchewan. It is indeed a way, as operated under members opposite, and continues to operate today. We have a very good relationship with municipalities and SARM,” said Cheveldayoff.

He said they continue to consult at the provincial level and at the regional level with individual municipalities. He added that under his government there was a record amount of revenue going to municipalities, “as it should be and as it will continue.”

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