USA — The Saskatchewan Party government is considering forcing rural municipalities to pay for wildfire suppression in zones around provincial forests – a move described by the NDP Opposition as a “downloading of costs” onto RMs.
“The province has a responsibility to protect against the potential damage of fires to communities, to industry and to people,” NDP environment critic Cathy Sproule said during question period this week.
“Under the proposed wildfire act, municipalities and their local volunteer firefighters could be left fighting fires with limited resources and equipment.
“So far there has been no indication that the act won’t contain this downloading of costs,” Sproule added.
Environment Minister Ken Cheveldayoff said in an interview the government is considering changing how costs are shared with municipalities for fighting wildfires in a 4.5-kilometre buffer zone around the forests.
“In the rest of the municipality, if a fire happens and provincial fire management is called in, then there is a cost that goes back to the municipality,” Cheveldayoff said.
“In this buffer zone, that’s not the case and we’re wanting to look at making that buffer zone smaller or eliminating it all together. As a government, we’ve given the municipalities a tremendous increase in resources and in doing that, we are asking them to take on added responsibilities from time to time, and this is one area where we think that we can come up with an agreement on how things like this should be funded,” he said, referring to increased revenue sharing with municipalities in recent years.
The change to the buffer zones has been delayed to accommodate additional consultation with the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities. The province is waiting to hear back from the SARM and is talking with municipalities, the minister said.
The SARM declined to comment Friday as the process is ongoing.
“I’m told the average cost would be about $4,000 a year per municipality,” Chevel-dayoff said.
There are about 1.1 million hectares in the buffer area across the province, which represents about 1.7 per cent of the total land in Saskatchewan. The 4.5-kilometre zone covers 34 of the 296 RMs in the province. It ranges from 2,600 ha to 105,300 ha per RM, or 2.9 to 33.6 per cent of the RM land bases, with an average of 15.7 per cent.
Sproule said RMs don’t necessarily have the equipment to fight wildfires in the buffer zones and that “bankruptcy could be the end result” for municipalities burdened with additional firefighting costs.
“What I’m hearing from the RMs is that they’re concerned about basically the additional responsibility they will need to take on with this new proposed bill,” Sproule said.