Alberta on the fire line

The tragic Slave Lake fire has amply demonstrated how thin the line is between safety and security in rural Alberta.

The tragic Slave Lake fire has amply demonstrated how thin the line is between safety and security in rural Alberta.

Amazingly, nobody was killed in that disaster, but that was as much a matter of good luck as good management.

The first line of fire defence in rural Alberta is thin and getting thinner. It has to be shored up to help limit future disasters.

Rural Alberta depends on volunteers to protect them from disaster every day.

They need support to keep performing their courageous duties.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown some willingness to help out. In his spring budget, Harper introduced a tax benefit for volunteer firefighters.

That initiative died on the parliamentary order paper when the election was called, but the prime minister has pledged to introduce it again with his new majority government.

He needs to not only follow through on that commitment, but to improve it.

Harper’s plan, offering a $3,000 tax break for volunteer firefighters, was laden with strings.

If your taxable income was less than $22,000, you wouldn’t get a nickel.

If your spouse’s income was too high, it would be reduced.

If you got a small honourarium at the end of the year for services well rendered, your tax credit would be clawed back.

Harper’s provincial counterparts need a plan to embrace all those benefits.

Penhold Fire Chief Jim Pendergast is leading the charge to ensure Alberta gets on board.

He plans to introduce a resolution at a coming fire chiefs’ convention, calling on the provincial government to offer a $3,000 tax break for volunteer firefighters.

Pendergast’s initiative is the latest in a long line of efforts to make life better for volunteer firefighters and safer for the thousands of people they assist.

Last year, he pressed for extended medical coverage for volunteer firefighters.

It’s a well-known and fact that people who routinely fight fires these days become afflicted with cancers from toxic chemicals released in the blazes they battle,

Eight years ago, professional firefighters, like those who protect us in the City of Red Deer, were granted extra medical coverage because of the higher risks they run, as an occupational hazard.

Since, 1993, they have been automatically covered by the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board when they contract certain types of cancer

The board does not demand proof of a specific link between exposure to a particular toxic chemical in a fire and the onset of cancer.

Some cancers have been deemed “presumptive,” meaning that when a cancer arose, it was automatically judged to have been triggered from exposure to carcinogens on the job.

Afflictions covered by Alberta include esophageal, lung, bladder and primary site brain cancers.

Pendergast and others pressed for similar coverage for volunteer firefighters.

Last year, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk who is responsible for this area, expressed sympathy for this notion but demanded scientific proof before moving forward.

This month Lakaszuk, prodded by Pendergast and others, extended workers’ compensation cancer coverage to volunteer firefighters.

There are 10,000 volunteer part-time firefighters in Alberta.

Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau called them “the backbone of fire services in the province” in announcing legislative changes to cover them for the cancer risks they take on the job.

That backbone is changing.

Rural firefighters used to be mostly farmers. The services they provided were largely reciprocal: helping neighbours they knew personally, trusting that the favour would be returned if the tables were turned.

They also knew that a grass fire in their area could expand quickly, engulfing their own crops and building in a heartbeat.

Today, volunteer firefighters are less likely to be farmers and less likely to know the victims of the fires they attend. They are brave and selfless.

As with all young modern families, they are extremely busy — spread thinly between work, family, social and volunteer priorities.

“You may go to as many fires as a full-time firefighter over your career,” said Pendergast, who has 30 years of service as a firefighter with both city and volunteer firefighters, including the City of Red Deer.

It’s not just grass fires and the occasional outbuilding anymore, either.

The services they provide are invaluable and unrelenting.

They deserve every possible benefit that can be extended, to honour their service and to save rural and small-town taxpayers the money they would have to pay out for full-time professional firefighters.

A well-crafted provincial tax break would be an inexpensive, worthy and welcome way of saying thanks.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.