Yellowhead Tribal College getting students ready to spot wildfires from the sky

Alberta is already preparing expected bad wildfire season ahead.

The Yellowhead Tribal College in Edmonton is only halfway through its first year of offering an environmental sciences program – but professors in the school are sure the skills the students are learning will be in high demand.

The Environmental Monitoring and Drone Technician Certificate, free to Indigenous applicants, teaches students several skills including the use of drones to help detect wildfire hotspots early so firefighters can take early action.

Jocelyn Verreault is the department head of Science and Technology at the college. She says with climate change, early detection is the key.

“Because fire is a natural part of disaster – it’s something that naturally happens. But with the changes in the climate, it’s been accelerated,” she said.

The course is, in part, paid for by the Indian Resource Council which represents 130 First Nations that are or looking to be in the oil and gas industry. The burning of fossil fuels is the leading cause of the climate crisis.

Province in need of more firefighters

Recently, the province of Alberta declared an early start to the 2024 wildfire season in the face of low snowpacks and forecasts of dry weather to come. Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said at a news conference on Feb. 20 that the season is now underway — 10 days earlier than the usual start of March 1.

“We are confident we are ready to tackle the upcoming wildfire season head-on,” he said.

Loewen said his department is asking for enough extra money in the budget to hire an extra 100 firefighters. If that request is approved, they will be in the field by May 15, he said.

That’s in addition to the 900 firefighters the province fielded in 2023, who are expected to be ready by April 15, said Loewen.

The new firefighters, if approved, won’t be dedicated to any particular area.

“We move them around to areas we need them the most,” said Loewen.

Loewen also said a permit is now required for any burning in the forest protection area. Fire bans are likely to follow.

“We’re going to be more proactive (on fire bans) than we were last year. I think we’re going to be more prepared than we were last year,” he said.

The extra staffing and permit requirement comes after last year’s record-setting fire season, which saw 22,000 square kilometres burned. That’s about 10 times the five-year average.

A total of 54 new fires and those remaining from last year continue to burn in the province.

This season is expected to be similarly hot. Large parts of Alberta are under severe or extreme drought and an El Nino season is predicted to bring continued warm temperatures.

Certificates will serve communities well

Darcy Hunt, CEO of Aboriginal Training Services, says the certificate the college is offering isn’t easy to complete, but obtaining it has many benefits. Graduates can help keep their traditional lands safe from fires.

“We wanted to be involved in detecting these hotspots and in order to do that, you need to get certifications such as grid testing certification … special flight operators certificates and a few other requirements,” he said.

“So we are in line to join this fight against the wildfires.”

With files from the Canadian Press

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