Clearwater County was one of two municipalities given the green light to create special firefighting teams under the Wildland Urban Interface program. (Photo by Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Service)

Clearwater County was one of two municipalities given the green light to create special firefighting teams under the Wildland Urban Interface program. (Photo by Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Service)

Clearwater County home to expert wildfire team

Province extends program that created crack wildfire teams in Clearwater County and High Level

A team of Clearwater County firefighters specially trained to lead the fight against major wildfires has been funded for another three years.

The province announced this week that $1.5 million will be directed to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) program overseen by Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Services (CRFRS).

In 2019, Clearwater County’s fire department was one of two selected, along with the Town of High Level, to lead WUI teams as part of an 18-month pilot project funded with $580,000 by the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association. The project was later extended to this spring and will now run into 2025.

A series of major wildfires in B.C. and across the province, including major fires in Fort McMurray and Slave Lake that saw dozens of central Alberta full-time and paid-on-call volunteer firefighters lending a hand, prompted the creation of the program to develop teams of experts to lead the fights to put out the flames and reduce property damage.

The money will go towards developing training programs, the actual training and to cover the cost of deploying the four-firefighter WUI team to wildfire emergencies.

Clearwater Deputy Fire Chief Evan Stewart said the WUI teams are part of a broader effort by provincial organizations, municipalities and their fire departments and other agencies to coordinate a response to major fires.

In the face of an emergency, WUI teams will be on the ground leading the response while the Provincial Operations Centre gathers the resources needed.

“It’s not just been us and High Level that’s managed to build this change. It’s been a huge team effort,” he said, adding private sector stakeholders are also involved.

“We just got lucky enough to have one of two teams for that initial response part, building the training curriculums and delivering training to municipal firefighters and contract firefighters across the province,” said Stewart.

“It’s a great opportunity for the province to have some consistency and delivery of training.”

That work includes developing firefighting plans for individual rural subdivisions so that in the event a wildfire approaches everyone knows exactly what to do and where to go.

In 2020, nearly 300 municipal firefighters were trained by WUI. The pandemic reduced training opportunities last year, but the teams completely overhauled the wildfire urban interface crew members course, which will be used for training from now on.

Team members were also on the ground helping lead the battle against the Tomahawk fire in Parkland County, which began burning in May and was still smouldering deep into the peat moss two months later.

They also went to B.C. for two months during the summer to help that province battle multiple fires throughout the interior. In all, Clearwater sent 10 firefighters, including WUI team members.

Clearwater has about 90 firefighters operating out of fire stations in Nordegg, Rocky Mountain House, Leslieville, Condor and Caroline.

Alberta Municipal Affairs is providing the $1.5 million in funding under the Alberta Community Partnership Strategic Initiatives as part of a partnership with Alberta Emergency Management Agency and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Besides employment opportunities, the program allows the county to take advantage of high-quality training opportunities, said Emergency and Legislative Services Director Christine Heggart.

“In terms of the local benefits, the Wildland Urban Interface Program for Clearwater County means enhanced capacity. We have a four-person full-time team here, 40 hours a week.”

When not deployed elsewhere or involved in their province-wide efforts, team members are available to fight local fires and oversee fire prevention and training initiatives.

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