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Dozens of contractors looking to volunteer in the firefight as Alberta wildfire season kicks off

Dozens of potential volunteers attend an information session in Breton, Alta., on Wednesday as the province prepares for this year's wildfire season.  (Julia Wong/CBC - image credit)
Dozens of potential volunteers attend an information session in Breton, Alta., on Wednesday as the province prepares for this year's wildfire season. (Julia Wong/CBC - image credit)

With the wildfire season in Alberta officially underway, some communities are already preparing for the firefight.

The fire department in Drayton Valley/Brazeau County is hosting information sessions for volunteer contractors, such as construction workers, water haulers and heavy equipment operators, who want to lend a hand if the season becomes difficult.

Last year, 2.2 million hectares burned in Alberta — the worst in the province's history — forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes. Residents in the Drayton Valley area were out of their homes for nearly two weeks.

That fire season started early and fire crews were quickly overwhelmed. Many Albertans chose to stay behind to defend their properties.

This year's fire season also kicked off early — on Tuesday, several days earlier than the typical March 1 — and there were already 55 active fires burning in Alberta as of Thursday, most of which are still smouldering from last year 

At the inaugural information session, held in Breton, Alta., 120 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, approximately 60 people gathered to learn about incident command structures, how to stay safe on the fire line and how to be pre-approved by the fire department to help.

South African firefighters work on a wildfire burning near Edson, Alberta.
South African firefighters work on a wildfire burning near Edson, Alberta.

South African firefighters work on a wildfire burning near Edson, Alta., in June. Last year's fire season started early and crews were soon overwhelmed. (Alberta Wildfire)

"Our goal this year obviously is to focus and harness that energy, the commitment and the technical ability that the contractors are bringing to turn that into very efficient tangible solutions on the ground," said fire captain Cole Starling.

"The best solutions come from the ground floor. Using resources locally benefits everyone within our municipality. We know these people. We work with them leading into hazard season."

Truck driver and equipment operator Layne Naprawa volunteered last year when fire threatened his community of Drayton Valley. He attended the session out of a sense of duty.

Cole Starling is leading the information sessions for volunteer contractors.
Cole Starling is leading the information sessions for volunteer contractors.

Fire captain Cole Starling says the best firefighting solutions come from using local resources and people. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"I just want to keep the community safe, honestly," he said.

"It's hard to sit back and watch as everything's burning around you."

Daniel Kaiser, a heavy equipment contractor, was also at the session with his 15 employees. Like Naprawa, he also helped out with last year's wildfire.

Truck driver and equipment operator Layne Naprawa volunteered last year when fire threatened his community of Drayton Valley.
Truck driver and equipment operator Layne Naprawa volunteered last year when fire threatened his community of Drayton Valley.

Truck driver and equipment operator Layne Naprawa volunteered last year when fire threatened his community of Drayton Valley. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"We [came] here, with me and my employees, to kind of help us learn a little bit more to be more efficient in firefighting and working alongside the fire department and have a better knowledge of how to do our job better," he said.

The session was one of several taking place around the county in the coming weeks.

Fire chief Tom Thomson says it makes sense to lean on people who work in local industries during fire season.

"A lot of them come with a lot of expertise in terms of training on equipment, in terms of safety practices. A lot of them have to have those safety practices for the oil industry. That's a good connection with us and it's something of value for us," he said.

"Similar to municipalities, the province doesn't have the resources as well and consequently everyone needs to pitch in on these things."

At an event on Tuesday, Alberta Forestry Minister Todd Loewen said the province is gearing up and staffing up for what could happen this spring — it will continue to use nighttime firefighting helicopters, bring in fire and ATV bans sooner and, pending approval in the provincial budget, will try to add 100 firefighters to the frontlines, he said.

Loewen says the province will also lean on volunteers, similar to last year.

"No jurisdiction has the number of firefighters available, trained, ready-to-go and employed on an annual basis to fight the worst fire year. That's why we have programs in place around the world to help make sure that we could share resources," he said.