11/14/2012 02:13 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

FireSmart Canada says Ottawa turns down funding request for wildfire prevention

EDMONTON - The federal government has turned down a funding request from a group that is working to protect communities from wildfires such as the ones last year that ravaged Slave Lake in northern Alberta.

FireSmart Canada says it asked Ottawa for about $1 million in seed money to help get a national program off the ground. The money was to be used to develop and promote a national standard for wildfire prevention planning for municipalities within forests and for rural homeowners.

Tom Burton, president of the non-profit organization, said Public Safety Canada rejected the request.

"The FireSmart program really isn't high on the priority list right now with the federal government," Burton said. "We are disappointed."

The wildfires that swept through Slave Lake in May 2011 caused more than $1 billion in property damage and firefighting and rebuilding costs. Some of the bill was covered by insurance, some of it by taxpayers.

FireSmart Canada is run by volunteers and representatives who work for such organizations as the Canadian Forest Service and Parks Canada. It also includes the British Columbia, Alberta and municipal governments.

The program they've come up with includes tips for municipalities and homeowners on how to clear brush and trees away from buildings, explains the need to establish fire breaks around communities and urges a wildfire evacuation strategy.

Using donations, the group launched a website last summer (www.firesmartcanada.ca/) to serve as a foundation for its efforts.

Executive director Kelly O'Shea said it is difficult to understand the federal government's response to their modest request for $1 million over two years — especially in light of what happened in Slave Lake.

More than 400 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged when fires whipped by high winds roared through the town. More than 7,000 people were forced from the community.

Many homes have been rebuilt, but reconstruction of houses and public buildings continues.

"When you consider one fire resulted in over $1 billion in damages and firefighting costs, it is peanuts, really," O'Shea said.

"A lot of people think that Slave Lake was a one-off and that it is not going to happen again. We are convinced that it will happen again, and it is really just a matter of time, when and where."

Public Safety Canada received the funding request last year. The department informed FireSmart Canada of its decision a few weeks ago.

"Public Safety Canada does not have the mechanism at this time through which such a funding request can be considered," Jean Paul Duval, a department spokesman, said from Ottawa.

Burton said FireSmart Canada hopes Public Safety Minister Vic Toews will reconsider. In the meantime, the organization will lobby Conservative MPs for their support.

O'Shea said FireSmart Canada has joined a federal initiative called the National Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction that was created by the Harper government in 2009, but there is an important catch.

No money.

"To be a member of the group is important, because we can certainly have some influence on national disasters as it applies to wildfires, but there is no money involved," O'Shea said.

"Our problem is keeping the lights on. We can't afford to do the things that we need to do."

One year after the Slave Lake fire, community groups in the region formed their own FireSmart team with help from the Alberta government.

The team has developed a plan to remove timber and brush from around buildings in the town, the surrounding municipal district and the Sawridge First Nation.