EDMONTON — Alberta is taking steps to try to minimize the risk of wildfires during the COVID-19 crisis.
The province announced Tuesday it will be hiring an additional 200 firefighters, bring in a fire ban on provincial land and restrict off-highway vehicles.
"This is a time like no other. Emergency and social resources at the provincial and municipal level are already taxed by the COVID-19 response," said Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen.
"We don't need the added burden of a human-caused wildfire this year. We also know that smoky air from wildfires is hard on everyone's lungs."
The province said about 8,800 square kilometres burned in Alberta last year and 71 per cent of fires were caused by humans. A 2016 wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alta., forced 88,000 people from their homes and scorched nearly 5,900 square kilometres.
"We don't expect that Mother Nature will give us a break this spring and summer, and that's why we're preparing for the possibility of other disasters such as wildfires, floods and tornadoes," said Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
Dreeshen said extra firefighters will be providing ground support.
Alberta will not be reinstating a program using firefighters rappelling from helicopters to battle blazes. The United Conservative government cancelled it in November to cut costs.
"The rappel program has been cancelled. But I believe half of the 63 firefighters have been rehired to continue to work within Alberta Wildfire, and these additional 200 fire fighters will essentially be ground support," Dreeshen said.
The usual sharing of resources between other provinces and some countries won't be an option this year, he added.
"With the current travel restrictions internationally, and even provincially, we are assuming that is going to be a difficult thing to achieve this year. That's why we're making sure we're beefing up our own firefighting support right now."
The fire ban will apply to provincial parks and protected areas, which account for about 60 per cent of the province, but won't apply to farm land or First Nations land, said Dreeshen.
He said $20 million is to be allocated to the FireSmart program in which communities take action such as clearing or thinning trees to reduce the risk of wildfires.
Alberta is also doubling fines for violators of fire bans and restrictions on off-highway vehicles.
"These are laws and they're there in place for a reason. If you break the law, you could receive a fine of $600 for being non-compliant with the fire ban or $1,200 for not being compliant with the OHV restrictions," the minister said.
"Anyone found to be the cause of a wildfire may also be liable for the costs associated with extinguishing the fire."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2020
— By Bill Graveland in Calgary
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version based on a figure provided by the government said 4,050 square kilometres burned in Alberta last year.