EDMONTON - Alberta will begin thinning trees around forest-enclosed communities as a way to prevent the wildfires that devastated homes and business in Slave Lake in 2011.
"The commitment I am announcing today is first and foremost an investment in protecting human lives and property," Diana McQueen, the minister in charge of sustainable resource development, told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
“It also confirms our pledge of continued investment in healthy forests by reducing wildfire threats.”
McQueen announced the province is accepting eight more recommendations from an independent panel struck to review the circumstances around three fires that swiftly swooped in on Slave Lake and surrounding communities on May 15, 2011.
The fires destroyed more than 560 homes and businesses, burned 22,000 hectares, forced 10,000 to flee, and caused more than $700 million in insurable losses.
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Accepting the eight recommendations means the province has now signed on to all 21 recommendations put forward by the panel last year, ranging from front-line prevention to better communications, and ways to get damaged communities back up and running.
McQueen said the province will allocate an additional $18 million in this year’s budget for the new initiatives.
On the tree-thinning plan, the report recommends focusing on coniferous stands, particularly those with black spruce.
Alberta is 60 per cent forest with about 400 communities surrounded by timber.
Alberta already does prescribed fires every year to fight the mountain pine beetle and reduce wildfire threat.
The government will spend $11 million to expand firefighting operations, increase the number of firefighters and implement specialized firefighting crews along the lines of U.S. Hotshot program.
The Hotshot crews are 20-person teams of elite firefighters trained in more complicated fire suppression situations with the physical stamina to work longer in remote areas with less logistical support.
The money will also be used to expand air tanker operations.
The other $7 million will be used for hazardous fuel reduction programs in forested areas near communities.
The total funding request is estimated at $705 million. More funds will be sought in future budgets.
The province will also seek to hike fines beyond the current $5,000 limit for those whose negligence causes fires.
The committee has suggested some firefighting jobs be expanded to year-round to help with the hazardous fuel reduction program.
There will be a renewed push to use more alternative communication methods like texting and other social media.
The government has already accepted a committee recommendation to better communicate during emergencies.
The committee has urged a straight-line reporting relationship in the forestry division of the sustainable resources department to better and more quickly ensure everyone knows who is in charge of what.
“People did great work on the ground (in the Slave Lake fire),” said McQueen.
“But we can do a better job to make sure in Edmonton and on the ground there’s a better (communication) connection.
“We’ve done a lot of work on that (already).”