WHEREAS Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is the wildfire authority under the Forest and Prairie Protection Act in the Forest Protection Area (FPA) in Alberta; and
WHEREAS during times of high wildfire hazard, the Government of Alberta may issue a fire restriction or fire ban within the FPA including the hamlets that fall within this area; and
WHEREAS an urban municipality (defined as a city, town, village, summer village, or urban service area of a specialized municipality) in the FPA has the authority to issue its own fire bans within its boundaries; and
WHEREAS hamlets are also areas where there is a concentration of people and residential dwellings; and
WHEREAS the Municipal Government Act (MGA) states that the council of a municipal district or specialized municipality may designate an unincorprated community within its boundaries as a hamlet if the unincorporated community meets certain density thresholds; and
WHEREAS the MGA allows for the council of a municipal district to pass a bylaw respecting fires that applies to the part of a hamlet that is within the FPA; and
WHEREAS the Municipal Government Act does not allow for the council of a specialized municipality to pass a bylaw respecting fires that applies to the parts of a hamlet that is within the FPA; and
WHEREAS the Forest and Prairie Protection Act also does not clearly define a municipal district, other than it includes a special area, and does not provide any definition of a specialized municipality;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta advocate to the Government of Alberta to amend necessary legislation (including the Municipal Government Act and/or the Forest and Prairie Protection Act) to clarify that councils of municipal districts and specialized municipalities may make decisions on fire bans in hamlets within the Forest Protection Area.
Mackenzie County falls entirely within the Forest Protection Area and as such is banned from any fires, including campfires, during a provincial fire ban.
The wildfire risk in Mackenzie County hamlets is extremely low based on the topography of the land. Each community has a volunteer fire department and inspections are completed by the Fire Chief prior to any fire pit approval. Mackenzie County has been accredited pursuant to Section 26 of the Safety Codes Act in the fire discipline since 1995. Additionally, members are also involved in the Wildland Urban Interface planning, training, and support.
Two other municipalities lie within our boundaries and are exempt based on their urban municipality status. This causes great dissention when similar communities in the same geographical area fall under different rules.
Mackenzie County’s official status, as established by Order in Council (OC), was changed from a municipal district to a specialized municipality on June 23, 1999. No urban service area has been established or defined in the OC.
RMA has no active resolutions directly related to this issue.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
AF supports the RMA’s resolution for rural municipalities to take on more responsibilities and decisions around fire bans within their hamlets. This year has been a challenging time for rural municipalities, and local concerns were compounded by the need for all government levels to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand this continues to be a difficult time for Albertans and communities across the province.
AF supported the government’s pandemic response this spring by introducing a number of measures aimed at preventing and responding to wildfires. One of these measures was a fire ban put in place to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires in the Forest Protection Area. Because rains and increased moisture levels kept wildfire hazard conditions low during the historically higher risk spring period, the restrictions were eased and then removed as conditions allowed. Other measures were implemented to help mitigate possible wildfire impacts in communities. This included hiring 200 additional firefighters, doubling fines for contravening a fire ban or off-highway vehicle restriction, and increasing funding for the FireSmart Program by $20 million.
Going forward there are some key considerations we are examining to support this resolution:
Removal of hamlets from the Forest Protection Area will allow for fire bans and all wildfire responsibilities to move to the rural municipality for administration in their hamlets. This includes responsibilities for all wildfire suppression and prevention activities within the hamlet boundaries, such as providing funding and staff to issue fire permits, manage fire bans, manage and fund FireSmart projects, bylaw enforcement, and suppression of any wildfires that start within the Hamlet boundaries. This will require municipalities to have clear established corporate boundaries for their Hamlets. The municipality could then establish new fire bylaws for their hamlets. The department can continue to assist municipal firefighting efforts through mutual aid agreements, but it should be noted that the rural municipality will also be responsible for all costs associated with fighting wildfires that originate within the hamlet boundaries.
Making amendments to both the MGA and the FPPA would require time; however, in support of the RMA resolution, my department will work with Municipal Affairs to begin this process. AF is committed to protecting communities from wildfire and supportive of municipalities taking a role in wildfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression within their own communities.
Alternative Policy Option
Alternatively, if Mackenzie County wishes to make an expedited change, they are uniquely positioned to do so as a specialized municipality. They can approach Municipal Affairs and request an administrative amendment to their formation order to allow them to make bylaws to establish an urban service area. This would allow an urban service area designation to replace the hamlet or other community areas. If those hamlet areas become an urban service area, they are automatically removed from the Forest Protection Area and become exempt from the application of fire bans and ministerial orders specific to the Forest Protection Area. They then could establish their own fire bylaws to apply within their urban service area. This may be faster than the legislative amendment process for the two acts (MGA and FPPA). If Mackenzie County wishes to pursue this alternative, AF would support the initiative as well.
Alberta Municipal Affairs
In consultation with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Municipal Affairs supports a review of section 75 of the Municipal Government Act as part of a review of the governance provisions in the Municipal Government Act in 2021.
RMA appreciates the support of Alberta Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development (AAFRED) has invited RMA to participate in consultations to amend legislation to allow municipalities to make decisions on fire bans in hamlets within the Forest Protection Area. However, RMA is concerned that AAFRED also indicated support for municipalities taking on a greater degree of responsibility for fire suppression within these hamlets. As local decision makers, RMA members are well positioned to understand local conditions, placing them in a position to make informed decisions about fire bans within hamlets. However, RMA members are not in a financial position to increase their service levels regarding fire management in hamlets without support from the Government of Alberta.
Following consultation with AAFRED and discussion on the possible unintended consequences of providing municipalities with more authorities around fire bans in hamlets, AAFRED has agreed to work with individual municipalities interested in taking on this authority on a case-by-case basis rather than make blanket legislative changes.
Although the resolution technically requests legislative changes, RMA assigns this resolution a status of Accepted, as AAFRED worked with RMA and municipalities to implement a solution that will meet the intent of the resolution while limiting the likelihood of unintended consequences for municipalities.