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N.B. politician calls for faster response to wildfires

September 14, 2023
By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A water bomber helps put out a fire at the Lake Utopia Paper Mill in southern New Brunswick in this file photo. Brunswick News Archive.

New Brunswick is at risk of suffering the same kind of forest fires that destroyed properties in Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories this summer if it doesn’t improve emergency communications, says a Progressive Conservative politician.

Mike Dawson, the Tory MLA for Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin, argues that two changes should be made to help douse fires in the woods quicker before they become raging infernos.

The backbencher from the governing party wants fire chiefs to be able to call in water bombers directly. And he thinks personnel in the Department of Natural Resources and Energy (DNR) who are assigned to fight forest fires should be dispatched directly through the emergency 911 system.

“When there’s a call for a forest fire, why isn’t DNR dispatched the same as police, ambulance and fire?” Dawson told Brunswick News this week. “And if the fire chief knows the area, they know best, they fight fires every day, if they know the area, how come they can’t call for water bombers if DNR’s not going to be on the scene as an emergency response?”


Dawson posed the same questions to the department’s deputy minister, Thomas MacFarlane, last Friday when he and other government officials appeared at the legislature’s public accounts committee.

The politician told Brunswick News afterwards that a July forest fire, sparked by a skidder deep in the woods, raised his concerns.

The flames, he said, quickly spread off the Howard Road, which skirts between Blackville and Upper Blackville about 50 kilometres southwest of Miramichi.

One of the fire chiefs for the area – whom Dawson preferred not to name – knew the area well and called a person he was acquainted with working with the pilots, who on that day were practising in Miramichi.

“He knew the guy who was working with the bombers,” Dawson said. “And they sent the bombers up to the fire, and they got there before the fire department did and prevented the fire from spreading. But the fire chief got questioned after the fact on why the water bombers were there and who called them in and who approved it.”

The politician said if anything, that’s the way emergency response should work, rather than waiting for DNR officials to approve water bombers in every situation, a game of telephone tag that could have deadly consequences when speed’s of the essence.

Dawson pointed to the more than four million hectares, or close to 10 million acres, of forest that have burned in the Northwest Territories so far this year, causing the capital of Yellowknife to be evacuated for several weeks.

“We don’t know when New Brunswick’s going to be the Northwest Territories,” he said. “If you look next door in Nova Scotia, there are things that could have been done in Nova Scotia that could have saved properties near Barrington Lake.”

That fire in southwestern Nova Scotia in late May and early June burned around 23,000 hectares (nearly 57,000 acres) and destroyed close to 40 properties.

Another big fire closer to Halifax destroyed close to 200 homes. All told, more than 16,000 people were temporarily evacuated in the worst fires Nova Scotia has seen in generations.

Under questioning from Dawson, New Brunswick’s deputy minister said when it came to forest fires, 911 dispatch first would contact Public Safety officials, who would then alert DNR.

MacFarlane said since the Stein Lake fire that engulfed an area just north of St. Andrews May 28, which forced 67 households to flee and destroyed a couple of properties, officials have been discussing how to quicken response times.

“Internally, we’re having a lot more conversations about the response, how we can improve our systems, how we can be better prepared as a province,” the deputy minister said. “It’s interesting to note that on that day, the Sunday the fire got started, there were 15 other fires started that day.”

MacFarlane said aircraft were the first line of attack on forest fires.

“We’ve seen on very high wind days, very dry days, a fire that gets started and doesn’t get contained quickly takes off,” he said. “Our efforts that day were to prevent any other disasters from happening. Because having three Stein Lake fires going on at the same time would be a complete disaster in our province.”

“Can we improve? One hundred per cent. And I think we all recognize that, and we’re all working towards the learnings from that day and how can we improve and make the system better.”

Dawson said he hoped his message got through.

“If it costs tens of millions of dollars to replace a town or village, and only costs $2,000 to $10,000 to have the water bombers there a few days, it makes sense to have those water bombers dispatched right away.”

John Chilibeck is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for The Daily Gleaner.

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