Estimates - Environment (21 November 2006)
From Economy Committee Hansard - 21 November 2006
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Department of Environment
Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Mr. Chair. And, Minister, welcome to you and your officials at this late hour of the evening. We have a number of important issues to discuss tonight, so I think we will dispense with the rhetoric and get on with the questions and answers.
Minister, in the supplementary estimates, Environment, vote 26, there is an additional $12.9 million being allocated to your department; 900,000 of recoverable fire suppression operations. Just very briefly, what is that about, that extra $900,000?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Basically it’s just expenses that took place this year, and we’re paying them, related to the summer. And so it would be expenses that weren’t in the initial budget in the year. As you’ll know, in the forest fighting area we try to get the best estimate we can of what the expenses will be for the year. And in this particular year that . . .
Mr. Hart: — Minister, there’s a footnote under vote 26 which talks about, it says, “Additional . . . [funds] required to provide for recoverable out-of-province fire suppression activities . . .” I wonder if you or your officials could expand on that.
Mr. Parkinson: — Yes, that would be recoverables that we got for sending planes and personnel to other jurisdictions in Canada — Ontario, Alberta, BC [British Columbia], etc.
Mr. Hart: — I know there was a lot of activity in that area, forest fires this year in our province. Did we send resources outside this province? Or what time of the year did we send resources outside this province, I guess is a better way of phrasing the question.
Mr. Parkinson: — We send them out throughout the fire season pending demand from other jurisdictions through the Canada interagency fire centre. So we would have sent them — off the top of my head I probably can’t recall the specific weeks that we sent them, but it would have been through the course of the summer — April through August. We also import resources throughout the same period of time.
Mr. Hart: — Just for clarification though, I can recall that at the height of the forest fire season here in the northern part of our province, the minister saying that he wished he had more resources. I’m presuming that we didn’t have resources. We wouldn’t have had resources outside of our province at the height of the fire season, or did we?
Mr. Parkinson: — I think you’re referring to the time in late June, early July, and during that period of time we did not have any resources exported. I believe that throughout that period of time, we did import resources from various jurisdictions. Ontario does stick out in my mind, and it was during that time that heavy demands were being placed on the Canadian interagency fire centre for resource sharing across the country.
And I think what the minister was referring to was that as we put requests into that interagency fire centre for additional resources to come to Saskatchewan, there was also high fire threat in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba, and there weren’t additional resources to be distributed.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Just to add to this, is that this is one of the reasons that this issue was top of the mind in the discussion with the forestry industries of forestry . . . of forest ministers of Canada in Yellowknife this fall. Last year there was an agreement that was signed around a Canadian wildfire strategy, and there was strong desire, but also I think a sense, that the federal government was going to come in and help and fund this sharing of resources across the country. And at the meeting we . . . this year we haven’t gotten that kind of support like we thought that we would, and so we’re still in a position now waiting for the federal government to come in and share with all of the provinces and territories of Canada in this national sharing of equipment. It’s a frustration.
I know that on behalf of the forest ministers, the forest minister from BC wrote a fairly strong letter to the federal minister saying, look, you know, you’re from British Columbia, and you’ve seen what’s happened in BC this summer. You know, we need some resources here.
So we’re happy to be sharing with other jurisdictions and working with them. This summer we got some help, but we also in times when we didn’t need all our staff, we gave help to other places.
Mr. Hart: — Okay thank you, Minister. The next line item is $7 million for forest fire capital projects. And again the note says, for the replacement of provincial fire suppression aircraft. I note in a news item that the replacement of the lost air tanker is estimated at $13 million. So the 7 million, is that a down payment on the new aircraft?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — That’s exactly what it is. We’re putting in 7 million this year and then 6 million next year. And they’re working to get the airframe and develop it, and we’ll hope to have delivery early in 2008, so for the 2008 fire season. So what we’re doing is basically spreading the cost of it over two years.
Mr. Hart: — So that means we will be short one of these large air tankers for the 2007 fire season then.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well we will except that we were going to be decommissioning some of the airplanes last year, and we kept the ones that we were replacing in service. And I think that what this will do is we’ll have one more this year in service for next year and then the two the following year. And I think we’re getting delivery of a couple of the other ones next spring. So by next spring I think we’ll . . . Will we have three? I’ll bid out and maybe turn it over to Daryl. . . or Alan.
Mr. Parkinson: — The delivery contract we have is . . . Conair delivered two CV 580 aircraft in March of this year. One of them was the plane that had the unfortunate accident, and in the production queue we had two more aircraft that are scheduled for delivery in March 2007.
This particular replacement aircraft, we had a clause in our agreement with Conair that if we were able to exercise it by a certain date, they would go out and search for and purchase airframes — CV 580 airframes — upon which they would then commence to manufacture a fourth aircraft for us for delivery in March 2008. And the reason why it’s two years out is basically due to the capacity of the manufacturing plant in Kelowna.
Mr. Hart: — Just a few questions about the 580. Where are the 580s based? Where’s their home base?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — They’re in La Ronge.
Mr. Hart: — In La Ronge. And they use . . . I guess I should ask the question. Do they use fire-retardant chemicals, or do they use water or can they use both?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — They use fire-retardant chemicals.
Mr. Hart: — And do they need to come back to La Ronge to be reloaded after they’ve dumped a load of fire retardant on a fire?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — That’s their main base, but the fire-retardant chemicals can be loaded on at other bases in the North. So they can go over on the west side or on the east side or come down to PA and be loaded up as well.
Mr. Hart: — Well during the last . . . I presume that we just had the one plane, the one 580 that was operational this past season. Is that correct?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — That’s correct.
Mr. Hart: — Did you have stockpiles of retardant at various locations throughout the North for this particular plane this season, or did it always come back to La Ronge to be reloaded?
Mr. Jessop: — No, we have retardant bases that the Trackers operate out of in La Ronge, Prince Albert, Hudson Bay, Meadow Lake, and Buffalo Narrows. So the 580 can actually reload out of those bases. So it depends on where the fires are where the closest base is to load with respect to closest to the fire, that kind of thing. So we spread out where they can work.
Mr. Hart: — So this season the 580 was actually was reloaded at a number of different locations across the North?
Mr. Jessop: — It was reloaded out of La Ronge and Prince Albert. There was some apron issues. They had to do some repair work at Meadow Lake, so we couldn’t load the large aircraft out of Meadow Lake. But we were loading this year out of La Ronge and Prince Albert.
Mr. Hart: — So then in fact this year the large aircraft was never reloaded in the Far North. Of the number of locations you listed, Stony Rapids wasn’t one of them, was it?
Mr. Jessop: — Stony Rapids doesn’t have a facility for reloading.
Mr. Hart: — So what do you need as far as a facility to reload?
Mr. Jessop: — Facilities of reloading, we have large tanks that store the retardant, and there are pumps to pump the retardant onto the aircraft when they’re reloading. So those . . . And we have to have the proper fuelling; we have to have an airstrip that’s going to be able carry the weight of those aircraft because these aircraft carry around 800 gallons versus around 650 to 700 gallons in the Tracker aircraft. So we have to have specific loading bases that has all of this equipment.
Further to that, the retardant is hauled by semi-trailer, so we have to have them in locations where they can be serviced by semi-trailer to haul the retardant there as well.
Mr. Hart: — Again just for . . . so I get a better understanding of what will happen in this upcoming fire season, which areas will you be fully operational and be able to load the 580s out of? You mentioned that this past season you only loaded them out of La Ronge and Prince Albert. Will these other communities that you mentioned, will they be ready, will they be able to load the 580s in 2007?
Mr. Jessop: — Well those two locations are . . . I believe we will have Meadow Lake operational with the . . . because they’ve been able to put the work into the tarmac there and into the apron that leads off the tarmac to the actual loading area. The six Tracker aircraft that we run in groups of three are still going to be operational all this coming summer. That can load from all of those bases.
The 580s can only load from the bases where we have the new tanks set up and the new fuelling and that kind of thing, so we’ll have Meadow Lake, La Ronge, and Prince Albert. They’re a faster flying airplane than the Trackers are as well. So strategically, although they can only load in those areas, they can travel huge distances in a short period of time.
Mr. Hart: — So am I correct in understanding then that the only locations that these 580s will be loaded out of is La Ronge, Prince Albert, and Meadow Lake?
Those are those the only three locations that you’re planning to load those aircraft out of?
Mr. Jessop: — I believe so for this year, and then we will have Hudson Bay coming on stream as well. And we will, in the future, likely have Buffalo Narrows because we’re loading the Trackers out of those locations now, and we’re operating out of those locations with the Trackers.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Just for example, we’ll have the full complement of planes that we had two years ago, the Trackers. This last summer we had the extra 580. Next summer we’ll have three 580s on top of the six Trackers.
Last summer when the fire was there at Stony Rapids, one of the key extra tools that we had to deal with that fire was the fact that the 580 could fly from La Ronge right up to that fire and deliver the chemicals in a way that the Trackers, you know, just don’t have that capability. So this was something that was of assistance in this last summer.
Normally we just use the water bombers in the Far North because of the difficulty of getting the retardant up north. I assume when we have that road finished up there, well then it’ll be much easier to have the retardant at even a further north point. But La Ronge is able to cover a broad spot across the North because of the capability of the plane.
Mr. Hart: — Well that’s true, Minister, except that I know from personal experience it takes a fair bit of time to fly from La Ronge to Stony Rapids. In times when forest fires are threatening communities, it would seem to me that we need to develop some ability to react more quickly if we’re investing, you know, significant dollars into, you know, four large aircraft.
I know you mentioned the difficulty of hauling the retardant up to, say, Stony Rapids which has a good airstrip that . . . I’m not an aviation expert by any means, but I’m guessing that the airstrip itself could handle the tankers. And the community brings in the majority of the supplies over that seasonal road including aviation fuel, car fuel, and groceries, and that sort of thing. I mean, it would just seem to me that we might want to be looking at developing some ability to reload those aircraft in that part of the province just so they’ll be much more effective in fighting some of these forest fires.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Yes. Well I think . . . I mean I’m not an expert on runways either, but I know that that Stony Rapids runway is good for what it’s used for now. But I think to have the heavy loads that you’d have with these planes, the runway probably wouldn’t last that long. It’s like driving some of the big trucks on our, you know, rural highways that aren’t designed for the big, heavy loads.
And so I think that that’s one of the reasons that we’ve put extra money into Meadow Lake. And that’s a very good airport. I always thought it was a very good airport. But the actual weights of these new planes were such that we couldn’t use them there until we fixed that. So I think I mean clearly the Tracker planes do a good job, the ones that are water bombers. And those are the ones that we have servicing the northern communities that are farther away. But we also now have this capability of some new planes, and we’ll continue to deploy them in the best way possible.
Mr. Hart: — There is an additional $5 million for green initiatives. I wonder, Minister, if you could just briefly explain what the funding is required for and explain the green initiatives and the $5 million that’s being requested.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — The green initiatives funding, this is money that we will be spending obviously before March 31, and it will deal with a number of requests that we’re getting. We’re still in the process of sorting them out around how we can make changes that respond in a whole broad area, you know, from, I mean, energy conservation issues, water issues, air quality issues, right across the board. And you will, I guess, just have to stay tuned, and we’ll explain how we are going to be expending this money.
Mr. Hart: — Minister, it seems to me the process in this building works somewhat on the presumption that you have some definite plans for the additional funding. And you know when they ask to explain what the taxpayers’ dollars are going to be used for, I don’t think the taxpayers would really like the answer stay tuned and we’ll let you know, sort of thing.
I mean there is a request here for an additional $5 million for your department, and I would hope that we have a somewhat more refined program rather than stay tuned. I was wondering if you could perhaps just elaborate a bit more.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well what we’re working on is a number of areas where we will be using these funds around certain kinds of green initiatives. We have people that have been approaching us for funding for different things. We were looking at some of those kinds of aspects. We haven’t had specific money to deal with some of these responses. And so we’ll be working on that. We’ll be basically looking through the various proposals that do relate to the green strategy discussions that we’ve had over the last year. And I think you’ve been part of a lot of those discussions where ideas come forward. And so we’ll be announcing more about this very soon.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, if you could provide the committee with even one or two examples . . . You’d mentioned that people have been requesting funding for some green, you know, for some green-initiative-type projects. And I wonder if you could at least give us one or two examples. You know, we’re going to be asked to vote on allocating more dollars to your department. And, you know, it would certainly give at least my colleagues and myself a bit more comfort in allocating this additional funds to your department if we had a little bit better idea of what the funds are being requested for.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Okay. Well these are . . . I’ll give you a whole array of different kinds of ones, and they’re ones that we’re evaluating and looking at. The city of Yorkton is very interested in water issues because of the pressures on their water system. And so there’s a possibility of trying to do something with low-flow showers, low-flow toilets, which actually would reduce the amount of water they need in that community.
There’s a few different places that have asked for funding to help them build green roofs, which I don’t know if you know what . . . greenroofs.com, I’d recommend people go and look at that if you want to see some very interesting things. But effectively what it is, is having vegetation on the roof, and it stores water. There’s a lot of very positive things. It’s also an insulator.
We have requests from various museums and places to do interpretation things around green areas. So there are some of the things like that.
All of the watershed reports that have come out have had requests for various projects within watershed areas. We’ll be looking at some of those.
There is . . . Through the various, you know, NGOs [non-governmental organization] involved in the environment areas, there are different kinds of proposals that come there. Obviously there’s technology companies, whether it’s water or some of the biogas and all these other ones, waste water treatment. So there’s a whole, whole array of different things like that. And so we end up with . . . Also in homes dealing with some of the generation issues, you know, electrical generator, wind power things, quite a number of different things.
And so what we’re trying to do is to figure out how to respond to a number of these requests in light of an overall strategy.
Mr. Hart: — So, Minister, would it be fair to say that a good part of this funding will be used for a number of pilot projects in various areas of energy conservation and those sorts of things?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Some of that would be, yes. And we also then have all of the recycling requests and issues that are coming through some of the municipal organizations across the province. So some of those we’ll be looking at, trying to address some of those issues as well.
Mr. Hart: — The recycling area, I know from previous discussions with the regional waste management authority people that they are having some financial difficulties due to a number of things, including the fluctuating prices for recyclable materials. So is part of this $5 million, is some of that earmarked for these regional waste management authorities?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — That’s a possibility as well. And basically the requests that are coming are so much greater than the resources, so that’s one of the reasons that we wanted to try to get some money in this year because we have ways we think that can be very positive for the environment, and the money will be able to be used in the next three or four months.
Mr. Hart: — Okay, good. Minister, I’m sure you’d be disappointed tonight if we didn’t raise the whole area of the forest fire protection policy and the so-called let-it-burn policy. This area has caused, I believe, a great deal of concern for a number of our communities in the North, and not only for residents of those communities but residents of southern Saskatchewan who own properties in the North. I have been contacted by quite a number of citizens who are very concerned about the let-it-burn strategy that’s been implemented. I believe we’re into our second year of . . . that area of the province . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Can I just correct you? Okay. You use those words. I don’t use those words. Anybody who’s involved in this whole process do not use the words that you have just used to describe this policy. And it’s, frankly, offensive. So why don’t you use the words that we use, which is wildfire strategy, to deal with those things which are important to Saskatchewan residents — people, homes, communities, businesses, and setting priorities around using our resources to make sure those things are protected? And that’s what our wildfire strategy is all about.
What we also recognize is the science. The professional foresters and the biologists and everyone else know and tell us that the whole boreal forest — starting all the way up in Alaska, going right across to Labrador — the natural way of regeneration of the forest is fire.
And if you don’t understand that in asking the questions, then you don’t end up with the right kinds of answers. But it’s very offensive to me and to many others for the kind of terms that you use to describe this because it’s not in our vocabulary at all.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, I certainly do understand the role that fire has to play in nature with . . . not only plays a role in the forest, it also plays a role in the southern part of the province.
And as someone who has been involved in agriculture for many years, we do use fire to renew certain areas of our properties and that sort of thing, and we know how fire can be very unpredictable. And we’ve seen that and very many of us have experienced that firsthand.
Certainly part of your wildfire management strategies is to let forest fires burn in areas of the province, and I don’t think we can dispute that. Certainly as you’ve mentioned, I recognize that there is a strategy that’s in place to deal with fires when they threaten human life, communities, and commercial installations. I have all your documents; I see your map and that sort of thing.
But nonetheless, this change in policy from where, three years ago, forest fires were attacked at the time that they were first spotted by and large to now letting fires burn if they aren’t close to communities has caused some problems for a number of people. And not only northern residents, but also residents in southern Saskatchewan who happen to own properties in those areas that are being affected by this new policy.
So if you’re offended by the term — let it burn — it is part of the overall management strategy as I understand it. And I don’t know if you can . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well I mean, I think that what you have to recognize is that in Saskatchewan, in Canada, the forest fire fighting policies have been around protection of people, communities, businesses, and also commercial forests. And so that that kind of a forest fire strategy, for example, was very strongly used in BC. Now what we found out in BC is that the trees all grew 60 years more and became prime targets for the mountain pine beetle, and now they’ve lost the whole forest. I mean I was talking to a fellow yesterday from Quesnel. He said 95 per cent of the trees were killed last year, and now they got the last 5 per cent because they haven’t had the rejuvenation of the forest through fire.
So we know that some of the older ways of dealing with rejuvenation of the forest have caused some major, major problems. Now what we did in Saskatchewan and what we’ve done in Saskatchewan over a number of years is continually re-examine how we fight forest fires. And we’ve done it in conjunction with our colleagues across the countries.
Now I . . . Daryl, I don’t know if I’ve put you on the spot here, but if you want to explain where and how we’ve gotten to where we are now. But I guess I want to assure you and assure the public that the wildfire fighting strategy that we have is specifically meant to protect people, communities, commercial operations, those little isolated cabins. We’ve got them all mapped. We know where they are. We know how to get people in there to try to do protection.
The other side, there’s a huge responsibility that we’re slowly working through to get all the communities ready because quite a number of the communities haven’t had fire plans around how they can protect their communities with fireguards and things like that. But Daryl . . .
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, if I could interject, our time is fairly short here. I’m certainly not in disagreement with the statement that fire has a role to play in our forests. You know, I certainly agree with that. I think where we disagree is in the implementation of that policy and perhaps some of the rigid adherence to the guidelines of the current policy, at least . . . Well you don’t believe me, but I believe that was the case in the Stony Rapids fire where we just about lost a community. But we’ll get to that.
And like, as I said, our time is short here. I would like to discuss this issue in a bit more detail with more specifics, you know, and that sort of thing. But as I said, I certainly understand that fire has a role to play. However as I said earlier, fire can be very . . . it changes as the wind blows, as conditions change.
And I think we’ve seen that, and particularly, I think, we saw that this summer in the Stony Rapids area. The people up there are very concerned about the policy and the way it was implemented this summer. They felt that there wasn’t enough flexibility in the implementation of the policy, and as a result we had a near catastrophe. But as you know my colleague and myself — Mr. Allchurch and myself — we, at the request of the people of that area, not only of Stony Rapids but of some of the other communities, we went up, and we saw for ourselves the area that was burnt. We talked to the people up there. We have, I think, a pretty good understanding from their vantage point as to actually what happened.
What I would like to do, and in the interests of time, we only have three-quarters of an hour to cover a number of issues, what I would like, Minister, from you and your officials, basically a brief outline of the series of events that started with the first notification that we had of fire between Stony Rapids and Fond-du-Lac, and take us to the point in time where the people came back to the community of Stony Rapids and Black Lake. But as I said just very briefly, just so that we can get a sense of the series of events as you and your department officials dealt with this in late June.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Sure. I will do an overview, and I’ll get help if there is some places where I’m . . . but I think practically our understanding is this. This is the Noel fire, I think is the name for it. And it started on June 3 within fire response observation zone at a distance of about 32 kilometres from the village of Stony Rapids. And this fire start location was approximately 12 kilometres outside the full response zone, so it was the observation zone.
This fire was monitored daily by air, and the burning conditions fluctuated between moderate to high between June 3 and June 22. The fire had reached a size of about 860 hectares by June 10 and remained relatively inactive after that date until June 22.
On June 22, an additional six firefighters were sent to Stony Rapids to augment the existing fire crew of 12. So that meant there were 18 fire personnel on . . . That was on June 22. So there were 18 fire personnel on the 22nd. On the 23rd, June 23, the burning conditions became extreme, and these Environment personnel began to assemble more firefighting resources.
On the 24th, a Sask Environment firefighter went out and installed what is called values protection system on an exploration camp. Effectively, go out and put up sprinklers and, you know, cover it that way. And at that time the fire was about 20 kilometres from the community. So that’s on the 24th.
On June 25, extreme burning conditions caused the fire to travel approximately 20 kilometres in a direction towards Stony Rapids. And by late afternoon the fire had reached the north side of the Fond du Lac River, with spot fires occurring within and around the village — so in other words, coming across the river. So on that day, June 25, the Sask Environment personnel and resources were actively engaged in firefighting south of the Fond du Lac River in the immediate area to protect the structures and the inhabitants.
So the value protection units — that’s basically where water cannons, sprinkler systems — they were set up around the Stony Rapids hospital, the fuel storage tanks, and vulnerable community structures. There were also mobilized fire suppression staff. Helicopters and heavy equipment were used to extinguish spot fires as they occurred in and around the community. So they were working there.
Mr. Hart: — What date did the helicopters extinguish the fires?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well I think that was . . . that’s on the 25th when the whole thing blew, you know, came across. And the Sask Environment staff were directly working on a fire of about 800 hectares just west of the community and one running in a westerly direction approximately 7 kilometres along the shoreline.
The airport was closed by the Sask Highways and Transportation because of smoke. And so . . . except for emergency traffic. So there weren’t suppression aircraft sent to Stony Rapids on the 25th, concerned because of the smoke around the airport.
On June 26, 39 staff including a Sask Environment incident management team, support staff, more sprinkler systems, pieces of heavy equipment, and six aircraft were on site at Stony Rapids to coordinate the fire suppression and the community protection. And the provincial Emergency Measures Organization dispatched evacuation coordination and information to Stony Rapids to coordinate the evacuation of the high-risk, health-impacted community residents of Stony Rapids, Fond-du-Lac, and Black Lake. In other words, there was lots of smoke around up there, and a lot of people were having a hard time breathing.
By June 27, Sask Environment had 60 firefighters involved, and they were providing the fire bombing aircraft to support the back burning operations to contain the spot fire located on the south side of the Fond du Lac River. So it had come across the river, and this was about 7 kilometres west.
On the 28th there were 55 firefighters working, and the fire was contained south of the Fond du Lac River. On June 29 and 30 there were 52 firefighters fighting the fire and which was still active north of the Fond du Lac River. And then on June 1 and 2 there were 51 firefighters, and then it started to rain and on July 3 more rain came and as that happened more of the firefighters were taken to other spots where there was lots of pressure.
So I think finally by July 14 there was a major rainfall, and that brought the fire status from out of control to just being observed, which it had been back in June. So it was not . . . after July 3, 4 was when people were allowed to come back by commercial airline.
So that’s kind of a rundown of what happened. And I think the key factor here is that you had a fire that for three weeks had gone maybe 10 or 11 kilometres, 12 kilometres, and then in one day it went 20 kilometres. And then the response of the firefighting people who were watching the whole situation out of the command centre in Prince Albert sent extra people in there to do the work.
So that’s how it’s described, and that’s how the firefighting system is supposed to work. As you know, and I haven’t laid out all of the other pressures in all the other places; all of our staff, our airplanes, everything were all extremely busy. We brought in the Ontario crews because they’d had rain down there. We had crews from other places to help out. Some of the Manitoba people were covering on the, I think, on the east side, and some of the Alberta people were helping us, although Alberta was under a huge attack, and also BC. There were lots of fires.
So this is a situation where the best position you can be in is to have everybody aware and getting the best information possible. But you put your staff to the places where the most need is, and that’s what happened here.
Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Minister, for that outline. The department has an office in Stony Rapids, and it’s my understanding that there’s a conservation officer stationed there, and there was a forest protection officer stationed in that office in Stony Rapids. Now did your forest protection officer, did he request that the fire be attacked before it reached the 20-kilometre response zone, prior to June 22?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well the information that I have is that it was being monitored by air. I mean people go out and look at it. Also . . .
Mr. Hart: — Okay. Who would be doing that monitoring?
Mr. Parkinson: — Well we have under contract . . . We contract annually to have aerial reconnaissance fly across the northern part of the province. And what they do is they do a bit of smoke spotting, as well as they will monitor fires as they go out and they do that reconnaissance work. And they report back to the fire centre.
Mr. Hart: — Now which fire centre, and to who specifically would they report to?
Mr. Parkinson: — That would be the Prince Albert fire centre, Daryl?
Mr. Jessop: — Yes. And if I could just add to that. We do have some contract aircraft that will fly flight patrols for us for spotting fires. They would be reporting any fires that they do spot directly back to that office. And the local forest protection officer there reports to La Ronge. La Ronge is the regional headquarters, and then we have Prince Albert as a provincial headquarters. We have Buffalo Narrows as another regional headquarters, and we have Prince Albert as another.
Mr. Hart: — I have your org chart here so . . .
Mr. Jessop: — Okay. So that’s the way it would be happening. And the local forest protection officer that you mentioned would also be doing some patrolling himself as well. There was a helicopter that was available, that was hired. That helicopter was there. It was hired at the time as well, when there was difficulty with the fire. So he would be doing some patrolling himself, and his staff, with a contracted fixed-wing aircraft that was at Stony Rapids.
Mr. Hart: — So if the person on the ground in Stony Rapids . . . You just said he would also be out flying the area and observing the fire. And if he had a major concern that this fire was going to get out of hand, even though it wasn’t within the 20-kilometre response zone as your policy dictates, it’s my understanding that there was a request made before the fire reached the 20-kilometre zone from the Stony Rapids area to attack this fire because the residents and your people up there felt that we were sitting on a ticking time bomb.
Now I was told that that happened. My question is, who would . . . your local person in Stony Rapids, who would he make that request to? Would he be requesting to La Ronge, to Prince Albert? And who makes the decision to deploy resources or to not deploy resources?
Mr. Jessop: — He would make . . . The person in that position would be making a request through to — and it would be through a fire report and through a wildfire situation analysis report — would be making recommendations or suggestions to the area base in La Ronge. And La Ronge would be forwarding . . . would be reviewing that and forwarding information to Prince Albert, to the provincial headquarters there. And it would be reviewed by our operational folks, operations director in Prince Albert.
Mr. Hart: — So my question to you is, did your person, your forest protection officer, request that this fire be responded to before it got to the 20-kilometre zone?
Mr. Jessop: — I don’t have the information with me. I’m not aware that there was a request to take action. If there was it would have gone through to La Ronge for review and they would have reviewed it. And they would have reviewed what is happening in situation with all of the fires in their region and also through the province. They also would have reviewed weather forecasts. We have a weather office of our own, a fire weather office. And they would have reviewed potential weather and potential fire behaviour and all of those kinds of things would have been . . . would go into a review before a decision was made as to whether or not we send additional resources to any fire anywhere.
Mr. Hart: — Okay. So what we have in here is a situation where we have a fire burning between two communities — Fond-du-Lac and Stony Rapids — started approximately halfway between the two communities in the driest area of the province where the forest fire reading was the highest.
We’ve got residents of a community . . . And from what I’ve been told by the residents also, your own people on the ground up there were saying, look we’ve got to get at this fire before it gets out of hand. Residents of the community said that that request went in on June 19. So what you’re telling me then is that this request goes first of all to La Ronge, and then it goes on to Prince Albert. And eventually a decision is made in Prince Albert as to whether additional resources should be deployed. Is that the way the system works?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — I think that’s the procedure. But if you have seen or talked to these people and understand how they work, those kinds of requests are going very quickly. I mean, it’s not as if it’s sort of going from desk to desk to desk. These are phone calls. These are emails and things like that. But the way you describe it is like there’s a whole bunch of delay. Well there’s not delay, but I think what you also have to recognize is during that time period there were many, many fires burning close to communities.
Mr. Hart: — I don’t think so. I think if you review the data, the only community that was in danger at that particular time frame, that was endangered by forest fire was the community of Stony Rapids. Shortly after that there was quite a number of communities that were endangered. I think if you go back and check your data, there was other fires burning, but they were burning in areas where there was no danger at that particular time to other communities.
I know you and other members of your government have used that as an excuse. But, Minister, I don’t think that the people. . . You go to Stony Rapids and tell the people that. We were there. I don’t know if anybody from your department in a senior capacity has been there to meet with those people.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — I think the answer to that is yes. And you’ve asked about the policy. The policy includes a review, and this is an ongoing thing. I think that there was a full-response fire by Buffalo Narrows that was taking place at this. . . But also as I pointed out in the timeline, until June 22 this fire was 20 kilometres away. It moved 20 kilometres in one day. And that’s the factor in this particular situation that is, you know, causes, you know, everybody to sort of take a look at what happened in this particular area.
But I think we also have to remember — for the people who have just joined us — that no lives were lost, no structures were lost, and that people were able to get in and respond in a way that made sure that the values that we were protecting were protected. But I think that there were a lot of people that were concerned. Some people were evacuated. Unfortunately this summer we had people evacuated in quite a number of communities.
Mr. Hart: — One further comment, Minister, before I turn questions over to my colleague. First of all, the point that I was trying to make, it wasn’t as far as the command structure and the decision-making structure. I don’t think time was a factor here in making the decision. But what I think was a factor is that the decision was made in Prince Albert, a half a province away from where the fire was taking place. And that the input of your own people on the ground and the residents of that area who have had a lot of experience with fires in that part of the province, I don’t think that their opinions entered into the decision at all. That’s what it appears to me, Minister.
Mr. Jessop: — Just on our policies and strategies and actually fire operations, if I can just offer something here on that. And we’ve heard tonight there is fire on the landscape. There’s been fire on the landscape for thousands of years up there across the boreal forest. The area burns about every 60 to 70 years so there has been fire there. Irrespective of what kind of response, operational strategies we’ve had any time in the history of this province, there has always been large fires.
Our response has always been to protect people — the safety of firefighters has also been part of that — communities, structures, industrial structures, that kind of thing. And the types of things that we look at when we make those decisions is, what are fires doing? Is it a threat? Is there potential threat? So we have to do that analysis on every fire that’s out there including this fire.
And even in past policies, the policy has been if a fire was beyond initial attack and couldn’t be put out small, which means you need to get to a fire within . . . The statistics and the science is that you need to get to a fire within 15 minutes or you have potential of not being able to contain it. So even under past policies where we’ve had initial attack, many of the fires, a lot of the fires in that area, because it’s such a huge expanse of an area, were actually beyond initial attack.
This fire was beyond initial attack for the period that we’re actually speaking about here, and the policies have always been protect the values, protect the community, protect the people, protect the structures, and that kind of thing. And that’s what we were doing under current strategies as well. And we did that in the end. When the fire did roll down to Stony Rapids, it did not actually jump the river.
We’ve done assessments on over 100 communities in the North and we’ve determined and we’ve identified where the real high-risk fuel areas are around communities.
The river was a fireguard; we knew it was a fireguard. The fire didn’t actually jump the river, as some people have said. There was spotting across the river. I’ve been evacuated from communities, and I’ve had to fight fire at night and back burn from communities and have firebrands falling around me and that kind of thing. So I have experienced it. Spots were thrown across the river, firebrands in the wind, so firefighters put those out in the community.
The fire we talk about west of the community was a spot fire. It was a spot that went across. We took action on that. The department and the staff there and the community people that were hired to work on the fire as well took action on that spot fire and . . .
Mr. Hart: — I’ve got to interject here. The fire jumped the river west of the community. And it wasn’t your staff that put that fire out and defended the community. It was the residents of that community. Your staff assisted. And, Minister, there wasn’t 18 staff members in the community on June 25. I don’t know who give you those figures. There were five people in that community. We talked to your officials . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — But just understand how the fire system works.
Mr. Hart: — We understand how the fire system works. We . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well we’ve had some . . .
Mr. Hart: — We make the point . . . Just a minute. I’m going to have . . .
The Chair: — All right. Could we please have order. Let’s ask the question and allow the minister to respond and not argue back and forth, please.
Mr. Hart: — So who has the floor again? Thank you, Mr. Chair. You and your officials made the statement that there was no buildings lost, no loss of life and that sort of thing. You’re right this time, and only by the grace of God and the extraordinary efforts of the people of that community that we didn’t lose that entire community and perhaps loss of life.
I suggest you and your officials travel up, go to Stony Rapids, sit down and meet with those people. Minister, the community of Stony . . . the mayor of Stony Rapids wrote you a two- or three-page letter on August 24 where he asked a number of questions. Did you respond to his letter? Have you responded to his letter?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — I’m not sure what letter you’re referring to, but . . .
Mr. Hart: — It’s dated August 21, 2006.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — I don’t have it with me here, but . . .
Mr. Hart: — No, no. Just a minute.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — You asked me a question. You let me answer.
The Chair: — Let him respond to the question.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — What we know on that particular fire is that there were local people hired, which is the normal course, and then they become Sask Environment personnel that deal with these particular fires. And so, sure it’s local people that are involved there. And I think you understand how that policy works. But I think also what you end up with in this particular situation is that the community has asked for a chance to review what’s happened in this particular fire. That’s being done, as you understood here where there’s some of the initial review of all of the information. That will continue with consultation with local communities and working with the local communities.
I think also it’s very clear that one of the things that happens in the off-season or when there’s a rainy part of the summer is that the forest fire fighting professionals go into communities and help them do local planning to be ready for incidents that may arise or may not arise in the coming years. And that’s an important part of the wildfire strategy as well.
All of these things have to be done and we have to make sure that we protect the local communities. And so we’ll continue to work with the local people. We’ll continue to work and coordinate this on a province-wide basis. We’ll work in the regions and I think that’s the appropriate way to do it.
Mr. Hart: — Minister, the letter I’m referring to is dated August 24 of this year. It’s from the hamlet of Stony Rapids. It’s addressed to you. It’s a three-page letter. Copies were sent to myself and my colleague, also the chief of the Black Lake First Nation and the outfitters and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
And you said . . . in your statement you said that the fire travelled 20 kilometres in one day. The people that were there said, in your letter they said, and I’m quoting now. There’s a series of at least seven questions that they ask. We checked with the village of Stony Rapids, with their administrator. To date they haven’t received a response to this letter. I guess that’s a whole other area. Are you ever going to respond to them?
But getting back to how quickly the fire travelled, they said, and I’m quoting now from the letter.
Remember this fire did not sneak up on anyone; it took three days to go 20 kilometres. Where . . . [was] our Fire Suppression Personnel?
They have an entirely different version. These people were there, Minister. I think we . . . You talk about a review. We’ll talk a little bit later in a few minutes about this review. But I think your version of the facts and, Minister, I know you’re going on what you’ve been provided, but it seems if you look . . . I’m sure you must have that letter. If not we’d be more than happy to give you a copy. The version of the facts as outlined by the mayor of Stony Rapids and the people that we talked to, there’s quite a difference between your version of the facts and their version of the facts. And frankly, Minister, I tend to believe the people that were there and went through this fire.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — All I’ll say is that that’s exactly why one would review what’s gone on, to get the perspectives from different areas. But what I know is that we have professional firefighters working at a whole number of different levels — local level, district level, and at the fire centre — and their job is to provide broad-based perspective on dealing with this and then dealing within specific communities.
Part of this overall wildfire fighting strategy that we have includes a review, in the time when the fires aren’t being fought, as to what happened the previous year. That’s exactly what I said in the summer, in the fall, now, is going to happen. And if there are things that we can learn, obviously we’ll end up changing some of the policies. That’s just how this has developed over many, many years.
And so we’ll continue with that kind of work, and we’ll listen carefully to what the local people have to say as well. But I think it’s important that we get all of the factors into the picture before we make any judgments.
Mr. Allchurch then asked some questions. Mr. Hart's questioning resumes at 2:46:30 in the video.
Mr. Hart: — I think what my colleague was attempting to point out is under the old policy, when the fire was first spotted, it was a small fire; it was between water bodies. It only actually had one way to go initially, and it could have been very easily extinguished. And it was our understanding, under the old policy, that it would have been extinguished. But now under the new policy, it is allowed to burn. You’re shaking your head but. . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Just let me answer.
Mr. Hart: — Well no. Let me finish because I will make a few more comments, and we’re running out of time here. We were told that by your old staff, staff who now I see are no longer stationed in Stony Rapids but have been reassigned as a training officer. And that is a whole series of questions whether this was a voluntary transfer or not. And we’ll be watching very closely as to what happens to some of these staff members as a result of the questions and that sort of thing, Minister, just for the record.
And so that was the understanding that your own staff had as far as the difference between the old policy and the new policy.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Okay. The line of questioning that you’ve just entered into is, frankly, insulting to the civil service, but we’ll leave that aside.
What happens under the old policy is similar to what happens under the new policy . . . is that you monitor where the fires are in relationship to communities and you make sure that you use your resources appropriately. That’s what would have happened five years or ten years ago. That’s what would happen now.
The intent of the question that your colleague was asking seemed to be, well if you knew the fire started and you could get there in 15 minutes, sure we could put it out. But this is 32 kilometres west of Stony Rapids on the north side of the Fond du Lac River, and it’s not a place where you would very easily get a crew in to do anything. And so it just seems very strange, the whole line of questioning here.
But I especially do not accept your comment about these staff and what happened, so that’s just entirely inappropriate.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, I’d like to respond to that comment. This weekend your NDP [New Democratic Party] convention was picketed, had an information picket line by SGEU [Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union]. And one of the vice-presidents of that organization made the statement, and it’s in the press, that there are managers within the civil servant that need to be dealt with.
I believe I am paraphrasing, but I believe that was the gist of it, his comments. And comments were in that line that we feel very strongly because that if a member of the civil servants provides some public information to members other than the government’s side, that we certainly do feel that these people should not be disciplined in any way, and that’s where those comments were coming from. And we are watching carefully in that area, Minister . . . . The member from Moose Jaw laughs. So why did you, did you, did you . . . did that member talk to I believe it’s Mr . . . .
A Member: — Did you?
Mr. Hart: — He was in the media, and that’s what he said. But that’s another issue, Minister.
The Chair: — Could we have some order please, and simply ask the questions. And, Mr. Minister, would you respond to the question please?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Yes, I’d like to respond. I think that whole line of questioning reflects complete ignorance of how the civil service works. Now earlier in this time period, the member raised the question of the letter from the mayor of Stony Rapids, and it arrived in my office on September 13. It was dated on August 24. I sent a response back to him on October 16. And I’m not certain because I don’t have a copy of his letter, but I think that we responded to all his questions and explained what was going to happen. And this is a response to that letter. So that deals with an earlier issue where you were raising some questions.
But I think that what we need to recognize is that we have highly skilled people who are managing our forest fire fighting system in this province. We need to thank them for the good work that they have done. Stony Rapids is fortunately a situation where no lives were lost, values were protected, and that a lot of good work was done with the local community and with other places in this area. I think that rather than cast aspersions on the people that are trying to do this good job . . . It’s not the kind of thing that should be done by members of this Assembly.
Mr. Hart: — Mr. Chair, we’ll leave the Stony Rapids issue, Minister, for now. There were other issues that arose during the forest fire season in northern Saskatchewan. I’ve been in conversation with a gentleman who owned property at MacKay Lake, and his cabin was lost. The water bombers were on the lake when the fire started. They left. We don’t know why. Perhaps there are legitimate reasons.
But in the whole system of notifying people about the status of their property and those sorts of things, it took this gentleman a long time to get word from your department as to whether his property was saved or whether it was burned. It took over a week before he could get any kind of information. He contacted your officials numerous times to get some confirmation as to . . . You can well imagine him and his family were very anxious about the status of their cabin up at MacKay Lake. As I said it took well over a week for that individual to get any kind of indication from your officials as to what happened.
When he contacted you, your office, about things like lease fees because the cabin did burn down, he was told that he would get some responses from your office. To date, it’s over a month since he’s contacted your office, Minister. It just seems to me — and I’m just summarizing very quickly because we are short of time — it just seems to me that there are other aspects to the whole way the forest fire issue has been handled in this province the last two years that really need to be reviewed, Minister.
And what I would suggest, Minister, is that, again speaking about the review . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Can I respond to that question first?
Mr. Hart: — I’m going to . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Because you raised an issue and . . .
Mr. Hart: — Well I’ll sum up, and then you can respond, Minister, okay?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well . . .
Mr. Hart: — Because I’m going into the review part. In questions yesterday, you said that the review of the firefighting policy and the way the fires were handled is taking place currently. Yet, Minister, in a response from the former Chair of this committee when my colleague and myself wrote to the Chair to ask this committee to review the whole forest fire issue, that letter received from that Chair was I believe in early September or mid-September. The former Chair of this committee had indicated that a review was taking place.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Can I respond or . . . [inaudible] . . . Like, let me respond here, okay, because you’re just rattling off . . . because you obviously, you obviously have a lot of notes.
The Chair: — Can we have some order, please.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: —Yes, but basically you raised the issue of MacKay Lake, and that particular cabin is on MacKay Lake. The fire . . . and it’s part of the fire that came . . . it was a huge, long fire that was coming right across through that area. I was actually up in that area that day and saw the smoke and saw the fire at MacKay Lake, so I know what you’re talking about. One of the really interesting challenges is that the whole fire service in the North is designed to try to protect as much property as possible. But it’s not possible to protect every individual cottage in the situation, so they work very hard to respond to that.
The review that I talked about is the fact that this policy has built right into it an annual review, and that will continue. It will happen every year. And that’s what’s going on right now.
Mr. Hart: — Mr. Chair, I understand we will have a bit more time.
The Chair: — Yes, we had allotted one and a half hours for this period of time. We were about 15 minutes late, so we will continue on to allow for the full hour and a half.
Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Mr. Chair. Now that we have a bit more time, I will try and deal with some of these issues in more detail.
The particular incident that I’m referring to, Minister, this gentleman’s cabin was the only one that was lost on MacKay Lake. I believe there’s a total of seven cabins on the lake plus two trappers’ cabins. The fire crept along the edge of the lake, as I understand it, and ended up just burning this one cabin down. As I’d said earlier, apparently the water bombers were on the lake but left. I guess there was questions. I know that the owner of the cabin would certainly like to know why the water bombers left without attacking the fire first and thereby preventing the loss of his cabin.
But another issue that has caused concern not only to this particular individual but other individuals is the lack of response and the long delay in getting information as to what is happening now. I can understand that at the time there was, in the La Ronge area, there was quite a number of fires and a lot of things were happening. So I guess some delay is certainly to be expected. However, frankly this individual had confirmation from some of his neighbours that his cabin actually was burnt. They were able to tell him well before your officials and your hotline was able to deliver that kind of information. So I mean that’s a bit of a concern.
I mean if . . . Well you may shake your head, but I mean the people were evacuated from the area, so therefore somehow the ordinary citizens were able to find out what actually happened prior to your people being able to tell the owner what happened. But then when the individual asked for some relief from lease fees due to loss of his cabin, he was told no; there’d be no adjustments made. Even though the local municipal authority up there said yes, we can forego this year’s takes because of your loss, your department said no. I wonder if you could explain that.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well I’m at a little bit of a loss to understand what you’re talking about because on that kind of a place, if it’s a lease, there would be a lease fee that would go to the lands department that covers these properties up north. I don’t think there would be any local fees, but I’m not totally certain so we can check that.
But practically the situation in those kinds of places will be reviewed and looked at. I know we’re trying to get more information about that particular situation, and I am aware of it myself because I actually was up in that area when this fire was happening. But the fire was, I think, a 30-kilometre front, and they were fighting it all along the 30 kilometres with the water bombers. And they put out over 200 sprinklers at 200 different sites to protect the places that they did, but unfortunately this place was caught in an area where it burned.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, I think the owner of the cabin would certainly appreciate an explanation as to what decisions were made around the MacKay Lake fire, and I could provide you with the individual’s name after we’re done here this evening and . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — We have that information. Just for example, on that day that was also the day that Stanley Mission was cut off by a fire and the whole community was isolated because the fire came right across their only road in. The fire was moving very quickly across that whole area, and people were fighting it, like I say, on a 30-kilometre front. People were working very hard trying to protect as much as possible.
Mr. Hart: — Well if I recall correctly from my conversations with the individual, I believe the people there, that were there before they evacuated that area, said that the fire moved quite slowly along the lake and that they felt that there was enough time to actually . . . Probably with one or two loads from the water bombers they could have extinguished the fire.
But I mean these are facts that need to be discovered and reviewed through an in-depth review. The other issues . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Okay. I think you asked me questions so I’ll try to respond here. That is one that we’re looking at because it is a situation where something that we valued — somebody’s cabin — was destroyed. And so it is one that we’re looking at. And in a situation like that you have to look at all the things that were happening around there. There are people that direct where the water bombers go and how they make their choices and so we can get some sense of that. And we have his name already, so we will get information to him.
Mr. Hart: — You say you are reviewing that particular incident, that loss at MacKay Lake.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Yes.
Mr. Hart: — Who’s involved in the review, Minister, of this particular incident?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — This is also being reviewed in the firefighting program by the senior people, the policy people, and they go and they look at all the information. Because as you’ve clearly indicated through the questions tonight, there are people operating on many different levels to respond to fires. And so they gather that information together and see what the whole picture is. And that’s what they will do here.
Mr. Hart: — Are any members of the general public, and particularly members of the public who reside in that general area or own property in that area, are they being involved in the review? Do they have any input into the review?
Mr. Jessop: — We don’t have a committee as such. It’s an internal department review. The reviews we are doing is with the public, with the leaders of the North. There was a meeting in August where there was leaders from the west side. There was some of the east side communities. We held another meeting in October where all of the northern communities and the northern First Nations leaders were invited. We’re having another review meeting tomorrow with the Athabasca chiefs and the Athabasca land use planning committee. We also have a meeting with the Saskatchewan outfitters at their association meeting in December, December 13 or 14. So, and we’ve . . . you know, that information has been put out in the news media that we will take information from anyone, from the public and from community leaders and industry and so on.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — . . . and clearly the letters that people have sent and questions that come in that . . . Because that identifies areas of concern and that’s what the whole purpose of the review is.
Mr. Hart: — Well are you also . . . Is part of your review, are you reviewing — and this may not be your department’s responsibility, I’m not sure as far as areas of jurisdiction and responsibility between yourself and the Minister of Corrections and Public Safety — but when evacuations take place and whether it be by air or by ground, does the Minister of Corrections and Public Safety, do they have a responsibility and are they involved or is it solely your responsibilities as minister?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well let me try to explain a little bit what happens. Basically it’s Corrections and Public Safety. If it’s a forest fire then clearly Department of Environment officials are involved, Health officials are involved both on a provincial basis and on a local regional health authority basis. There also quite a number of people that come from Community Resources because they have a task of finding accommodation, food, child care, all those things that relate to what’s happened. If it’s a longer evacuation that’s involved, well then we get the Department of Learning involved because there may be school issues that need to take place if it happens during a school year. I think some of the fires were just at the end so that wasn’t as big an issue this year. But it’s a multi-faceted review.
I know I had the opportunity to be in Prince Albert at the command central when these things were happening, and we saw incredible focus on making sure they could respond to the needs in different communities. In that meeting they had many people come in on a telephone conference call and I think these were held every day at 10 o’clock in the morning, and it included the chiefs from the various communities that were affected. And I think the, one of the . . . it always had the meteorologist, the weather guy, explaining what the 24-hour weather picture was so that every . . . And the whole purpose was so that everybody involved could have the same information and understand what things were being done. And on that basis I think we’ve got some very good work being done in the province to respond when there are emergencies.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, the reason why I asked you to explain the areas of responsibility, because I was in conversation with a number of people who were in the La Ronge area at the time of the evacuations and their impression — at least the people that I spoke to — was that there was a fair bit of disorganization, that it was unorganized in some aspects. There was traffic being allowed to go in one direction and not the other. And there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. It seemed to me. . . and these people were certainly asking that they have a forum whereby they could register their concerns about the way that whole evacuation process was handled in the La Ronge area.
We’re short of time and I’m not going to go into great detail other than to say that there was some . . .
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Are you talking about evacuation from Stony Rapids?
Mr. Hart: — No, no. I’m talking about the La Ronge area.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — From Stanley Mission . . .
Mr. Hart: — Yes, yes, that area. But getting back to this individual who lost their cabin at MacKay Lake, they did, as I said, did ask for relief from paying this year’s lease fees. They were told no.
You know, they have some major concerns. The individual, the cabin owner, did eventually contact your office, and they relayed all the information to one of your assistants, Minister. And that was on October 12, and this individual was assured that he would be getting a response from your office. To date he hasn’t had a call or anything with regards to his issues. And I was wondering if over a month, I’m sure you and your people would have some time to at least respond to this individual’s concerns. And I ask that you would do that, Minister.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well I’m not certain of the timelines involved. And I know the previous timelines you used, related to the mayor up North, were out by about a month. So I will take that under advisement. But what I would say is that these specific requests will be looked at and dealt with appropriately.
I mean obviously we were very concerned when somebody lost their cabin. And I know this was quite a nice place that had many memories attached to it. And that’s always a very difficult thing.
And I know. I’ve been on MacKay Lake a few times myself. It’s a beautiful area. And I, frankly, was almost crying seeing what kind of damage was done to that whole area around the Churchill with the fire. But I always have to remind myself that that is part of what happens and makes for a renewed and better forest in that area. And our goal here as a firefighting service for forest fires in the North is to protect values and that’s one where the activities didn’t do that. So we will look into it.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, I guess we could probably discuss this whole, these issues for another hour and a half. However I think what is abundantly clear, at least to myself and my colleagues, is that there seems, particularly if we look at the Stony Rapids fire, the . . . [inaudible] . . . fire and that’s the area that we’re most familiar with, and it seems that there seems to be different versions to the events that happened.
And, Minister, I would suggest to you that, and I certainly don’t mean to make any presumptions, but it seems to me that you may not be getting the full picture by only having, by having the review done only by people within your own department. I think you need to involve the communities that were directly affected by the fires and these policies. And, Minister, I think the public would like to be part of that whole review, Minister.
And what I would ask you at this time is if, is that you refer the review of the firefighting practices of this past year to this committee, the Standing Committee on the Economy, so that this committee can conduct a review of what happened during the forest fire season of 2006. Would you do that, Minister?
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — I don’t think that would be the appropriate thing to do. I think probably a better thing to do would be for me to invite you to come with me to the forest fire fighting centre in Prince Albert and get a full briefing on how we work and operate in this province. And I think that when you have the full briefing of how this whole system works, that many of the questions that you seem to have tonight would be answered.
I think that this is an area where we need to have the community information. We need to have the information from people who have been affected, but I think it’s especially an area where we need the advice of the professionals that are involved in this business. And we are, I think, fortunate in Saskatchewan to have very many capable people who are running our whole system — which is a very complicated one but it’s one that’s been providing good service for us in this province.
Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, thank you for the invitation, but what I would do is I would invite you to accompany me to Stony Rapids and Black Lake and bring your officials with you. And in fact I think, Minister, it would probably be very helpful and beneficial if this entire committee journey to Prince Albert, meeting with your officials, and then moving on to the North, to Stony Rapids, Black Lake, Fond-du-Lac — all the communities that were evacuated this summer as a result of the forest fires — to hear from the people who were directly affected by the forest fires, to have their input, Minister.
I think it would be a valuable experience, and I would hope that you would have the courage to recommend and refer this to this committee, Minister. This is what these committees have been set up to do — to work intersessionally, Minister.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — Well I think what I would say is that clearly a number of members, including you, have spent some time up in the North looking at some of their issues. I know that I have spent time up there. The Chair of the committee’s been up there a number of times.
And we listen carefully to people in the communities and try to work through how we can deal with this. The system that we have now is there because we’ve listened to people over many, many decades, and we have allocated large numbers of dollars to make sure that we have even a better system. We want to be part of a national firefighting system.
I think that if we’re talking about suggestions for each other, it might be helpful if you could contact some of your colleagues in Ottawa on some of these kinds of issues around firefighting as well because clearly these are issues where we need to share resources across the country. And I think that we will continue to work with local people and communities. We will continue to work with individuals where they’ve had problems, but we’ll also work with the professionals who have ended up spending their whole careers making sure that we can provide the best service possible.
You may want to end on a high note and apologize for some of your previous comments about our civil servants because we don’t need that kind of comment here in the legislature when we’re dealing with valuable public employees.
Mr. Hart: — Minister, I certainly will apologize for some of the comments when one of the vice-presidents, I guess — I’m not sure of the term — of the SGEU apologizes for their statements they made outside your convention, Minister. I’m not sure of the individual’s name, but I certainly can get it for you. And he made some very disparaging remarks about some of the managers in the civil service. And I certainly . . . That’s not a broad-based comment, Minister, on my part.
All I was trying to say in the comments that I made is that we certainly would hope that because some of your staff in Stony Rapids spoke to myself and my colleague and provided public information, that no actions be taken. And as I was on your website today and I noticed that the one individual is no longer stationed in Stony Rapids but is in another position with your department. Now that might be very legitimate. I hope it is. I have no reason to believe otherwise. But all I would like to say is that we will be observing movements of these individuals and we would hope that they would be treated very fairly. But based on the comments by this individual with SGEU, it does leave the door open for some suspicions. But we certainly are . . . Those suspicions and those comments were made by a senior member of SGEU, not myself, Minister.
Hon. Mr. Nilson: — I only raised that point because I see that we are all colleagues in the legislature and there’s certain kinds of comments that are beneath being a member of the legislature and I just felt that that was one, and so we’ll leave it at that.
Thank you very much for the kinds of questions that you had this evening, and we will continue to work to make sure that we have the best professionals available to protect the people of Saskatchewan as it relates to fighting forest fires in Saskatchewan.
The Chair: — All right. Thank you very much. I’d like to thank on behalf of the committee the minister and his officials for coming tonight. It’s been a long evening and we do very much appreciate you coming and appearing before the committee and answering the questions of the committee. Yes, Mr. Lautermilch.
Hon. Mr. Lautermilch: — Mr. Chairman, on behalf of the government I want to thank the officials for their patience, for their tolerance, and for the good work that they do. As a member of the legislature from northern Saskatchewan whose community has been threatened by fire and who has lost a neighbour to a forest fire through an accident just east of Prince Albert, I understand the nature of second-guessing the work that you do, and I understand the criticism that comes from some areas unfairly. I also understand that you have some major challenges when you have huge forest fires. I want to thank you for the work that you do on behalf of the people of Saskatchewan.
The Chair: — Mr. Hart, you wanted to . . .
Mr. Hart: — Yes, Mr. Chair. Mr. Chair, I also would like to thank the minister and his officials and I certainly hope that the minister’s officials here tonight didn’t take any of the comments out of context. We also believe that the officials certainly do a great job for this province; however when comments such as were in the media by a member of the SGEU, we certainly have to be cognizant of those type of comments. I know we certainly hope and feel that there’s no grounds for those type of comments.
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