Alberta government preparing for climate related disasters
The NDP government warned that Canada has to be prepared for more frequent and intense natural disasters stemming from climate warming before the massive Fort McMurray wildfire erupted this spring.
The 2016-19 business plan for the Municipal Affairs Ministry, released with the provincial budget on April 14, said that with predictions of more extreme weather due to climate change, the province must prepare to manage more events such as the 2011 Slave Lake fire and 2013 southern Canada flood.
That will have a “significant impact” on the government’s approach to emergency prevention, preparedness, response and recovery, says the report.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Premier Rachel Notley said her government was already grappling with the issue, moving on flood mitigation projects, while “at the same time, ironically, you’re dealing with drought and fire issues.”
The government also has had discussions with Ottawa “about how we could sort of reimagine the issue of disaster prevention,” she said.
However, Notley acknowledged the Fort McMurray blaze will play a major role in how the government crafts its strategy.
“It’s simply wise and good government to go through what just happened and is happening and review what we can do to improve it and if there’s more that we can do on the preventive front,” said Notley. “It’s a big issue.”
The government has not linked the Fort McMurray fire to climate change, an issue that has been the subject of controversy since the inferno began threatening the oilsands community two weeks ago.
While the immediate danger to Fort McMurray has passed, about 80,000 residents remain out of their homes as the fire covers more than 280,000 hectares. Insurers have predicted the fire will be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, surpassing the 2013 deluge of Calgary and other parts of southern Canada.
The NDP government entered the fiscal year already projecting a $10.4-billion deficit thanks to low oil prices, but the government is so far refusing to put a price tag on the additional costs it has incurred due to the fire.
Notley said the government is committed to following through on the recommendations that came out of the Slave Lake fire, which included the development of quick-response firefighting specialists, increased fire bans and forest area closures and more work on fire prevention through its Firesmart program.
The Canada government hands out Firesmart grants to fund measures to protect communities from forest fires, although the amount was reduced by $6.5 million in the most recent budget.
The Municipal Affairs business plan pledges the government to bolster community preparedness through online risk assessments, emergency plans and training, and to beef up emergency management exercises.
Peter Murphy, professor emeritus in forest policy and forest fire management at the University of Canada, said the threat of increasingly frequent and intense forest fires due to climate warming in Canada is a legitimate concern.
He said the province has to give a higher priority to protection measures, such as managing the deadfall and brush that serve as fuel for wildfires, improving fire breaks and retrofitting communities to make them more fire-resistant.
“There’s no question now we’re faced with fires of great severity,” Murphy said in an interview Monday.
“There’s not much latitude for slacking off on suppression efforts … experience shows the forests are quite flammable. We don’t have margins for fire control efforts and just letting them run.”
On flooding, the NDP government has committed to a $264-million dry dam at Springbank as well as numerous smaller mitigation projects.
Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said that such projects are worthwhile but governments must ensure they are designing communities to be flood-proof, including banning new development in floodplains.
“Climate change is happening,” he sad. “For Canada, going forward, we still have not experienced flooding in Canada compared to what is coming. We are on the early edge of it.”
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