Canadian Mutual Aid Resource Sharing
Agreement: Not a very exciting name, we agree. But every summer it proves in one or more hot spots in Canada to be one of the more important agreements most of us will never read.
Also know by its acronym MARS, the agreement between the provinces and territories spells out how advanced resources to fight forest fires, beyond a single jurisdiction's capacity to extinguish, will be shared on a formal basis, outlining three categories of resources: equipment, personnel and aircraft.
In the last couple of weeks, firefighters have been sent from Manitoba to British Columbia. In addition to the firefighters, pumps and relay tanks were shipped to British Columbia. The first group of 40 firefighters went July 25 along with 50 pumps. As they rotate back home to Manitoba they are replaced by more firefighters if needed.
Manitoba specializes in initial attack crews of wild land firefighters, deployed from Helitac bases and deplaning or repelling from helicopters, but will go wherever duty calls.
Manitoba wild land forest firefighters usually work fires in small crews of four or five, basically bivouacking on site until the fire is totally out. But at the Chippy Creek fire in Montana two years ago, the Manitoba crews, used to more water, fewer roads and smaller hills than are found in Montana, were using hand tools and chainsaws to clear vegetation.
Much like British Columbia is now, the Chippy Creek fire was a totally different type of landscape than Manitoba fire crews were used to working in at home. Compared to similar areas in the United States, Northern Manitoba resembles Minnesota more than anything else, complete with numerous lakes, peat bogs and otherwise generally flat topography.
In contrast, the portion of northwest Montana that the Manitobans were working in two years - which has parallels to the current situation in British Columbia - featured heavily timbered mountains, steep slopes and rocky ridges.
The Chippy Creek fire burned in steep, rugged country, with continuous timber and dead and downed lodgepole pine, about 67 kilometres southwest of Kalispell and 39 kilometres north of Thompson Falls, Mont. The "terrain difficulty" was rated as "extreme" according to the Northern Rockies Interagency Incident Management Team in Missoula, Montana.
In addition to the different terrain, fire is fought differently in the two countries. In Northern Manitoba, crews rely heavily on helicopters to access fires in areas mostly without roads. Once they're on the line, they then utilize fireline water shows, using pumps and hose-lays from nearby lakes, to suppress their fires.
The concept of 20-firefighter crews working out of large, organized fire camps, like they were on the Chippy Creek fire, was largely foreign to them.
Over recent years, Manitoba has dispatched forest firefighters to Quebec, Alberta, B.C., Montana, Oregon and Yukon and CL-215 water bombers to Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Minnesota.
In July 2007, firefighters from crews in British Columbia were brought into to aid the 480 firefighters from Manitoba battling wilderness blazes, mainly here in Northern Manitoba. Firefighters from Ontario followed. As well, two Canadair CL-215 water bombers from Buffalo Airways in the Northwest Territories, the first aircraft ever designed specifically for water bombing by 'scooping' 5,443 kilograms of water into the internal tanks within 10 seconds from a lake as close to the forest fire as possible, joined the seven-plane Manitoba water bomber fleet in fighting the fires, along with 20 helicopters. Two aerial water tankers were also used.
In addition to MARS, a diplomatic note signed with the United States authorizes the sharing of resources for fire suppression across the international border. The Canada/United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement (CANUS) combined with several other exemptions allows for quick movement of resources through Customs and Immigration, key during a severe forest fire season.
Both of the MARS and Canada/United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement spell out the terms under which resources can be legally shared, how resources will be made available, what costs will be involved and the conditions for their return.
All of this is administered and co-ordinated by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre on Weston Street in Winnipeg as the national organization responsible for
co-ordinating the sharing of critical forest fire resources.
The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre opened on June 2, 1982 with a mandate to "provide operational forest fire management services to member agencies that will, by agreement, gather, analyze and disseminate fire management information to ensure a cost-effective sharing of resources; and actively promote, develop, refine, standardize and provide services to member agencies that will improve forest fire management in Canada."
The federal government contributes one-third of the centre's operating costs. The provinces and territories on the basis of their inventoried productive forestland fund the remaining two-thirds. British Columbia, for example, with large tracts of forest, pays 17 per cent of the two-thirds while Prince Edward Island pays only 0.1 per cent.
In terms of reciprocity, fairness and community safety, Canadians have much to be grateful for in the work of the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre though the Canadian Mutual Aid Resource Sharing
Agreement and Canada/United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement.