Sturgeon County can no longer rely on the availability of a volunteer fire service — it’s time for the county to recruit, equip and train a full-time professional firefighting department.
This last seven days have finally seen the county’s crews gain a foothold on a blazing wildfire in the county’s northeast that destroyed three homes before it was finally contained. The volunteer fire department and its dedicated members deserve praise for their professionalism and skill in limiting the county’s losses.
But it’s only May. Temperatures are already soaring into the 20s and precipitation throughout the Capital region has been scarce. Barring an enormous amount of moisture, wildfires will continue to be the order of the day. The problem is most county firefighters have full-time jobs inside Edmonton, as fire Chief Bart Clark conceded during a recent interview. Sturgeon has been trying hard to find new men and women to top up its ranks, but the strains on the county service are becoming evident. Even Clark believes a full-time force will be needed sooner rather than later.
Even with seven fire halls located in such places as Namao, Gibbons, Morinville and Bon Accord, the demands on the fire department’s services and time are growing, and not just from fighting brush fires. Sturgeon fire services responded to 680 calls last year, more than double the 335 from 10 years ago. The bulk of that number consists of responding to motor vehicle accidents as more and more people started making the long trek from Edmonton to Fort McMurray. The bitumen upgrader boom that went bust — which could have seen as many as four enormous facilities built within the county — would have forced Sturgeon’s hand. Even with most of the upgraders on hold now due to the flagging economy, the county’s firefighters are still busy — too busy to be limited to volunteers and their availability. Today’s council is steering Sturgeon towards an industrial and residential vision that far outstrips the capacity of a volunteer fire department, with new proposed subdivisions such as Quail Ridge and the aforementioned upgraders. Heartland Hall is envisioned as a full-time fire hall for the upgrader area, but if the county insists on development throughout its 2,109 sq. kilometres, the demands on the volunteer fire force will continue to grow.
Sturgeon has traditionally drawn upon the resources around it to fulfil demands on emergency services. Edmonton Garrison has always helped the county, as has Morinville. In 2003, St. Albert emergency services made 126 trips to Sturgeon County. According to a county budget document, there were 23 instances in 2007 alone in which the county fire department could not respond to an emergency in its district. On many other occasions, the crews that did respond did so with less than a full complement. The time it takes to assemble volunteers, load-up and arrive on scene seldom meets the nine-minute, 90 per cent of the time response window.
The volunteer firefighters who do make up Sturgeon’s firefighting force should be first in line when it comes to searching for full-time crews. They are professional and well trained, and many have gone on to become full-time firefighters in other municipalities.
Sturgeon residents are some of the lowest-taxed in the regions, and moving to a full-time force won’t be cheap. Based on St. Albert’s fire department budget, the county will need as much as $3 million more to make it happen. But if residents are going to watch their community give way to industrial and residential expansion, the county is going to have to find a way to supply reliable fire services when needed. The financial cost might be high, but it would be more favourable than watching Sturgeon go up in flames.