Federal government funding projects to reduce wildfire risk

Ralph Goodale makes an announcement in Prince Albert on April 23, 2019 (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald).

The federal government is helping the province reduce the risk wildfires pose to communities.

On Tuesday, Public Safety Ministry Ralph Goodale announced $40.2 million for two wildfire mitigation projects in the province.

One will see federal funding of up to $19.8 million to help SaskPower upgrade its distribution network and clear or maintain up to 10,000 hectares of forested area, mitigating the risk and intensity of fires in and around electrical distribution systems. SaskPower is making a matching investment.

The other announcement was for about $20.5 million to support the province’ 142 wildfire fuel mitigation initiatives to protect 85 communities from wildfire threats.

The program will see fire breaks built, forest makeups adjusted or dead wood cleared to help lower the risk of fires starting, improved management of fire, reduce damage and protect lives in communities that are in or adjacent to the forest.

The initiatives will cover 1,392 hectares f provincial Crown land and 1,072 hectares of municipal land. The province, SaskPower and municipalities will contribute to funds to the program.

The pair of announcements was among six made Tuesday during Goodale’s visit to Prince Albert.

The funding is part of the $2-billion Disaster Mitigation an Adaptation Fund, which is part of the government’s plan aimed at responding to the consequences of climate change.

“The most obvious consequence of climate change in Saskatchewan is the increasing frequency and severity of damaging weather cycles,” Goodale said.

“In Saskatchewan, the biggest forms of risks are storms and floods on one side and droughts and wildfires on the other. In just the last few years we’ve seen very costly examples of both. The idea here is to invest in smart, preventative measures in advance.”

The 85 communities are the “majority” of those within the forested part of the province, wildfire management executive director Steve Roberts said.

Most of the communities are in the northern half of the province, while a few, including some in the Cypress Hills area, are further south.

Prince Albert will see benefits from this program. Goodale confirmed grooming around the fringe of Prince Albert is included in the list of projects.

The work to assess and manage wildfire risk is a big part of what the wildfire management branch does when it’s not out battling current fires. Roberts said the assessments have already been done, and the mitigation work will start with the communities deemed the highest risk, before moving to lower risk areas. It was a program that would have taken the province “decades” to do on its own, he said, but thanks to the federal funding, it can be completed in eight to nine years.

“We have a response side of our business, fighting fires, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.

“But every one of these communities has a threat because they’re in a forested environment. So by working with the communities …. When a fire does occur, it causes less stress, (reduces the likelihood) of evacuation and has less chance to do damage that will be difficult to replace or repair in a short period of time.”

Goodale echoed that point.

“Fire protection measures are undertaken on a regular basis by provincial agencies managing the forest, but this extra funding will allow these programs to be expanded in scope and conducted on a more regular basis over a longer period of time,” Goodale said, adding that by removing fuel and dry residue that’s accumulated, communities will be safer and more secure.

Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne was pleased that the city will benefit from increased support in its wildfire mitigation activities.

He added that the city is looking at clearing out dead trees from Little Red River Park to do its part to reduce wildfire risk.

Fuel breaks, one of the ways the plan will manage wildfire risk, help protect communities while also creating anchor points the province can use to contain a fire where, right now, there’s just standing timber. Creating breaks, though, is just one thing the province can do.

“We can take mature forest stands and convert those to juvenile stands, we can thin stands out, we can covert stands from spruce to hardwoods like aspen that are less fire prone — it still looks like a park-like setting around communities, but reduces their direct risk of a fire,” Roberts said.

The funding also includes a multi-year assessment and continued monitoring and management. That way, once a community has been protected, regrowth doesn’t undo that work. In some of the areas where trees will be cleared, Roberts said, the ministry will work with industry to see if there are opportunities to harvest the trees for use in the commercial pulp and paper industry.