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Yellowhead County man with fire truck ready to defend his community following devastating 2023 wildfires

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There is still bad blood in one county west of Edmonton over the municipality’s response to the historic 2023 Alberta wildfires.

Thirty-six homes were destroyed in Yellowhead County and a survey of residents in the hardest hit area found just 13 per cent were satisfied with the county’s response to the disaster.

“When push comes to shove we're not going to phone 911,” rancher Robin Callioux recently told CTV News Edmonton. “We are going to phone each other.”

Callioux has no firefighting training but said he spent weeks last year battling wildfires alongside 50 to 60 of his neighbours.

“There was trucks. Pickups with tanks. I had a 1,700 gallon tank on that truck and trailer unit down there. And we just, we had a guy on 92 with a dugout, we all filled up there and it was like an orchestrated dance.”

“It was the most community support I have ever seen in my life,” he added.

Midsummer Callioux brought in even more reinforcements, buying a used fire truck.

“Mostly why I bought it was to protect our assets down at the ranch — the Go Hard Ranch venue — and that’s what it’s going to do. But if the neighbours need it, I’ll be there.”

Yellowhead County resident Robin Callioux shows CTV News Edmonton's Nicole Weisberg his fire truck on April 4, 2024. (CTV News Edmonton)

During the firefight, Callioux said he saw provincial firefighters once and hired fire crews from out of town but Yellowhead County firefighters were absent.

“The verbiage we got over and over and over was ‘we do not fight wildfires because we are not trained.’”

The mayor of Yellowhead County said firefighters were focused on the structural protection of “as many county homes as possible.”

Wade Williams said they set up sprinkler systems that stretched from Evansburg to Marlboro, about 124 kilometres.

“There was a perimeter set up around the entire area of Wildwood.”

“[The fire] went around Wildwood and burnt toward Chip Lake. There is not a doubt in my mind had that sprinkler perimeter system not been set up, we would have lost the entire hamlet.”

Sprinkler systems set up in Yellowhead County on May 2, 2023. (CTV News Edmonton)

Report highlights resource challenges

An after action report of the county’s response highlighted issues with training, jurisdiction and resources.

The report by consultancy 9Zero Solutions Ltd. states “the exceptional speed and magnitude of the 2023 wildfires resulted in significant disparity between public expectations and the harsh realities on the fire ground.”

The report said Yellowhead County had 14 full-time firefighters covering more than 22,000 square kilometres of land.

It also said of its roster of 70 volunteer firefighters, 43 per cent worked four shifts or fewer during the wildfire response.

A dozen wildfires broke out during that time and some of those fires combined to create three wildfire complexes.

“It was just a perfect storm. So we had extremely dry weather, we had low humidity and we had high winds and the fires progressed very, very quickly,” said Williams.

“At that point in time, we could not get air support so we were trying to fight these fires with ground crews only.”

The report also noted the county’s fire department was spread “unbearably thin” in several different directions.

Crews were still responsible for routine emergencies such as car crashes, as well as managing the overall emergency response, assisting Alberta Wildfire in the Forest Protection Area and the entire wildfire response in a small region outside that area.

“I think we did the best job that we could under the circumstances and I will stick by that,” said Williams. “We were under fire for 60 days. We had no loss of human life.”

The report credited the county for creating four full-time equivalent positions and two work experience students but said there “is opportunity for subsequent investment”.

It recommended a six-person seasonal crew focused on wildland firefighting.

“A lot of the recommendations are already being actioned as we speak,” Williams said. “Some of them need further discussion.”

The county’s fire chief, Albert Bahri, declined an interview with CTV News Edmonton.

Greater incentives needed for volunteer firefighters: CAFC

The president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) believes too much was expected of volunteer firefighters in 2023.

He said many sign up to work occasional shifts, not for weeks on end.

“Certainly the summer of 2023 has given us a new reality and a new understanding of what we might be facing in the years to come,” Ken McMullen told CTV News Edmonton.

CAFC is advocating for greater incentives for firefighters since its data indicates many are leaving the profession.

“There are 126,000 firefighters in Canada today, made up of volunteer, composite and career fire departments. What is unfortunate is that number has dropped significantly over the years,” said McMullen.

Volunteers made up the largest drop according to McMullen.

Parkland County firefighters responding to a wildfire on April 29, 2023. (CTV News Edmonton)

The CAFC commended the federal government for recently doubling the volunteer firefighter tax credit to $6,000 but it is pushing for it to be even higher.

“We will continue to advocate. We have the data that supports $10,000 is a very fair and accurate number in order to show support.”

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