Australia and Canada Should Keep an Eye on Wildfire Season Overlap, Says Report

British Columbia and Alberta both have firefighting resource sharing agreements with Australia, where peak fire season usually happens during our winter. As Fort Mac burns, at least one Canadian firefighting chopper is still on its way back from Down...

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May 7 2016, 2:29pm

So far, Alberta hasn't called for international backup in Fort Mac. Photo via Twitter

As Canada's oil and gas capital continues to burn, at least one Canadian-owned firefighting helicopter is still on its way back from Australia, where it presumably helped battle late-season bush blazes.

A small Port Alberni-based aircraft operator announced the pending arrival on Facebook Wednesday. "Our second firefighting aircraft will arrive back from Australia next week, and we will be offering it to Alberta as well," wrote Wayne Coulson of Coulson Flying Tankers.

Though it's just one chopper—no great loss to ongoing firefighting efforts in Fort Mac—Australian climate campaigners say hold ups like these are going to become more and more frequent as wildfire seasons on both sides of the Pacific burn longer, hotter and in more unpredictable ways. A report released by the Climate Council of Australia predicts increasing pressure on global firefighting resources, with serious consequences for BC, Alberta and Australia.

Both British Columbia and Alberta have formal firefighting agreements with Australian governments that have been in place for a decade or more. This includes sharing personnel, aircraft and other equipment when a crisis arises. Meanwhile, global fire seasons have extended by 19 percent over three decades—more than a month in some parts of North America.

Fort Mac from the sky. Photo via Twitter

This year, fires in Australia have extended into April, while Alberta's early season fires have already damaged more hectares than in all of 2013 and 2014 put together. The Fort McMurray fire alone could grow as big as 2,000 square kilometres by the end of today, according to fire officials.

"We had fires in August all the way through to April," Australian Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie told VICE. "That's almost every season except winter. If your fire season has started in April—that's early for Canada to have spring fires—that does challenge these relationships."

In both Australia and Canada, those tensions are compounded by the fact many local provinces and states are also having what McKenzie calls "catastrophic" conditions and fires at the same time. The report found this extra competing demand requires the number of global firefighters to double by 2030. If not, says the report, international help in times of crisis won't be guaranteed. So far, says McKenzie, governments in both hemispheres have yet to invest enough in emergency preparedness to make that happen. Instead, Alberta actually cut its fire budget by $15 million earlier this year.

Exactly how much firefighting resources do Australia and Canada share? During the peak of last summer's wildfires across western Canada, Australia sent over 104 firefighters and logistics specialists. Alberta alone brought in 47 Aussie firefighters last season, though a spokesperson for the Alberta wildfire service said none were sent in return this winter.

"We do have mutual aid agreements in place to ensure that they have the same training we require," said Alberta wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather. "That way, if we need well-trained firefighters quickly, we don't have to spend the time training them." All told, the province brought in 1,112 firefighters from other provinces and around the world in 2015, and lent out 232 in the province's off-season.

Aussie firefighters were called in 2014 and 2015 to give local guys a rest. Photo via Twitter

According to the Climate Council report, Australia leased more than 120 aircraft from North American sources in the 2015-16 season, including some Canadian planes and helicopters.

It's tough to know exactly how many Canadian planes and helicopters are leased out to Australia, or for how long, because most are privately owned and operated. Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer for BC's wildfire service, told VICE all firefighting aircraft are privately contracted in BC. "We do not own any of them," he said. "Other provinces have different approaches."

Alberta owns some water bombers, but also contracts out many from private operators. That leaves seasonal decisions in the hands of companies like Coulson Flying Tankers and Conair Canada. VICE reached out to Conair, operator of 65 firefighting aircraft, as well as Coulson, but did not receive a response Friday.

"That's the way it is here in Australia as well... [with] different companies hiring out equipment to different jurisdictions," said McKenzie. In a climate of increasing uncertainty, how will these companies know where to send resources? "It's an interesting question to ask."

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.

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