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Did Ottawa use enough military personnel to help fight B.C. wildfires?

Amid another devastating wildfire season, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo candidates in the Sept. 20 federal election are weighing in on the issue.
Sparks Lake fire
A night view of the massive Sparks Lake fire. The fire started about 40 kilometres northwest of Kamloops on June 28 and has grown to about 93,500 hectares as of Aug. 22, 2021.

While the late August weather has cooled the fire risk in the Kamloops area and helped immensely with evacuation alerts and orders being rescinded, the debate over government resources remains as hot as ever.

Amid another devastating wildfire season, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo candidates in the Sept. 20 federal election are weighing in on how well the federal government has responded with military support.

Earlier this month, when the fire were threatening Logan Lake and other communities, Conservative candidate Frank Caputo called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces to help fight the fires in B.C., echoing statements from party leader Erin O’Toole, who issued an open letter to the effect last week.

"People are telling me that they need assistance and they need it now,” Caputo said in a release. “After seven weeks of extreme wildfires, the firefighters are burned out and need reinforcements.”

In mid-July, the federal government announced up to 350 Canadian Forces personnel were being deployed to B.C. to help.

“It should be a full deployment with all hands on deck and all available resources to the area,” Caputo told KTW. “The people who are here are burned out, they need to rejuvenate and, given the nature of the state of emergency we’re in, we appear to need a lot more than 350 people.”

Caputo said the military is but one of many resources that could be increased to help fight the fires, noting police and firefighters are already helping and communities are still in jeopardy.

“We’re one lightning strike away from catastrophe, so we should be proactive in one sense and giving those other 350 people a break in another.”

Liberal candidate Jesse McCormick said the decision is best left to the province and military, which would have determined sending the 350 military personnel to B.C.

“The amount of support is based on the provincial authority’s request for assistance,” McCormick said, citing the Canadian Armed Forces public information.

According to the federal government’s website, Operation LENTUS is used to determine military response to natural disasters. In the event provincial authorities are overwhelmed by a wildfire season, they can submit a request for assistance outlining how much help they need from the military. From that, the military determines how many people to send, and what kinds of assets to send with them.

In recent years, this has been anywhere from 60 to 2,600 members, according to the federal website. On July 20, 350 military personnel were deployed via LENTUS to assist B.C.’s wildfire suppression efforts. Common tasks for each iteration of Operation LENTUS include mopping up fires, evacuating people, checking on residents, helping law enforcement disseminate information and delivering aid to remote communities.

McCormick said it’s his understanding the 350 personnel was determined to be the appropriate amount of people to deploy based on the scale of the natural disaster and the request from the province, arguing it is an issue that should not be politicized.

“We all stand behind the Canadian Armed Forces, the BC Wildfire Service and their response and tremendous work they’re doing to help keep British Columbians safe,” McCormick said.

Meanwhile both local NDP and Green candidates say the military complement in the province is a question best left to the experts and not politicians.

NDP candidate Bill Sundhu said that while the question is best left to those overseeing the wildfire situation, the public perception is that more help from added military personnel could be useful.

“RCMP forces are stretched, volunteers are stretched, the firefighters themselves and the support crews for the firefighters are stretched as well,” Sundhu said.

Green candidate Ian Currie said whatever money is being spent on the upcoming election could be put to better use assisting the wildfire emergency in B.C., but noted the amount of military support needed to help fight wildfires is one for the military and the province to determine.

“It’s probably not a question politicians should be answering at this point,” Currie said, opining that it is unfortunate the issue is being politicized.

He said it is his understanding the province has asked for more help and that should be provided.

“The Canadian military has lots of things to do, but none of them have the same urgency as fighting the forest fires right now,” Currie said.

Independent candidate Bob O’Brien said he is not sure how many military personnel should be helping in the firefighting effort, but added they should have been here before the blazes started.

“We did not have enough military here,” O’Brien said.

He told KTW that from the moment record high temperatures were set in late June and thunderstorms were approaching, a disaster should have been anticipated and military deployed.

“I would have been in the premier’s office demanding action and then into the prime minister’s office demanding action — and, if that didn’t provide a proper response, I would have picked up a shovel and asked for volunteers to help put the fires out,” O’Brien said.

People’s Party candidate Corally Delwo said she commends the federal government for sending in the troops it did.

“We need whatever help we could get,” she said, noting that while the province could probably use more military support, it’s a question of availability, which would need to be examined.

Ken Gillis, chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, and some area mayors have also called for more military support to relieve emergency operations volunteers.

Party pledges for firefighting season

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau recently pledged $500 million ahead of the next fire season to train 1,000 new community-based firefighters and fund new equipment — such as water bombers and helicopters — to fight climate change-related events.

Caputo said the Conservatives plan to invest in technology that can better predict and detect wildfires and pledge to address climate change that directly relates to wildfires. He anticipates party leader Erin O’Toole will have more to announce in the coming days.

Caputo noted the Liberals were in power during particularly bad wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018, arguing their pledge “rings hollow, given they called an election while the province was literally on fire and in a state of emergency.”

He also noted Trudeau did not visit areas of B.C. affected by the wildfires.

O’Toole has also yet to make a stop.

Sundhu feels an inquiry will be needed once the wildfire season is over regarding how climate change and wildfires will be managed. He said resources should then be decided upon based on that inquiry.

“I think that anybody who makes up policy in the middle of the wildfire [season] is guessing,” Sundhu said, adding that Trudeau’s promises should be taken with some skepticism.

“They’ve known about the wildfires and climate change. We had terrible wildfires in British Columbia in 2017, 2018 and now it’s election time and Mr. Trudeau makes all kinds of promises,” he said.

Currie said the Greens don’t yet have their platform out with costing, but noted the party has always been clear that there needs to be proactive work managing fire fuels and taking steps on climate change.

Delwo said she hasn’t yet heard of any specific commitments from the People’s Party, but added that, as MP, she would call for a public inquiry to determine how to improve firefighting services given the number of homes and property lost to wildfires this year.

According to the BC Wildfire Service, 858,000 hectares of land has been burned by wildfires this year, with only 2018 (1.35-million hectares) and 2017 (1.21-million hectares) resulting in more land scorched by wildfires since record began in 1950.