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Feds looking at options for a national disaster response agency as wildfires rage

The federal government is studying options for creating a new national disaster response agency.
A woman walks her dog along the Ottawa River in Ottawa as smoke from wildfires obscures Gatineau, Que., in the distance on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The federal government is studying options for creating a new national disaster response agency.

The discussions come as Canada is experiencing its worst wildfire season in history and after governments once again had to call on the military to step in and help.

With several hundred fires still burning, dozens of them in western and northern Quebec, wildfire smoke is blanketing large swaths of that province and eastern and southern Ontario.

Environment Canada has issued special air quality advisories in both provinces.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to update Canadians on the fire situation Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier this week, he said the government is heavily focused on getting through this difficult fire season but that “absolutely” discussions need to be had about how to be better prepared as climate change makes fire seasons like this one more likely.

“We have since 1982 had CIFFC, the Canadian Interagency Fire Fighting Centre, that has over the past years grown in importance and relevance,” he said Monday.

“We continue to work with it. … As we know, climate change is going to bring more extreme weather events in the future, more dangerous floods, more difficult and devastating wildfires, and more intense hurricanes and storms. We are going to need to continue to step up in our support for Canadians.”

A senior government source told The Canadian Press that discussions on a new approach are already well underway and include analyzing the merits of creating a Canadian version of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States.

FEMA was created in 1979 with the dual responsibilities of emergency management and civil defence. It leads the U.S. government’s programs to prepare for, prevent, respond and recover from natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other major incidents.

There are other options also on the table. The discussions include Trudeau and multiple departments and ministers, including Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

The agency or team would not just be for fires but for all disasters, including flooding and major storms, such as hurricanes.

Canada’s disaster response plans currently involve different levels of government on a case-by-case basis. They repeatedly turn to the Canadian Armed Forces to deploy soldiers and equipment to help.

When the military responds in Canada, that work falls under Operation Lentus.

CAF documents show that the operation was triggered 21 times between 2018 and 2022, not including 118 requests for help from the military in 2020 to respond to COVID-19.

The military has warned that calling upon it for help in a disaster should be the last-ditch response after all other options are exhausted.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre has warned that the high demand on his troops for disaster assistance is straining the military’s overall capacity.

More than 500 soldiers and military specialists are currently deployed in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia helping with fires, along with equipment including waterbombers and other aircraft.

There have been more than 2,300 fires in Canada this year to date, burning more than 10 times the average amount of land by this point in the year. More than 120,000 Canadians have been forced from their homes at some point this spring, and thousands remain evacuated today.

The impact of the fires is being felt far and wide, most acutely in the communities directly affected but also hundreds of kilometres away in major cities — and even thousands of kilometres south into the United States.

Poor air quality is forecast to persist into the weekend across parts of Ontario, as plumes of wildfire smoke blanket the province and prompt school boards to limit outdoor activities.

Ottawa, Belleville and Kingston registered some of the worst air pollution levels in the country, maxing out the air quality index at very high risk. People with lung conditions and other chronic illnesses are being warned to avoid outdoor activity completely, while all others are told to limit outdoor exercise.

In Ottawa, school boards cancelled outdoor recesses and sports leagues cancelled games and practices. The Toronto District School Board also said all strenuous outdoor activities would be rescheduled or moved indoors when possible, while school boards in York Region said they would hold recess inside.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Wednesday is Clean Air Day in Canada, a day when the public is supposed to reflect on the importance of air quality to our health.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said wearing a mask can help protect against the smoke.

Air quality index levels were forecasted to peak at high risk in many other Ontario cities, from Windsor through to Toronto and north to Sudbury.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

— With files from Jordan Omstead.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press