Twenty Strong

Community-based wildland firefighting crew in the Slave Lake area is gearing up for fire season.

Fire season started March 1, and not soon after, so did a Slave Lake wildland firefighting crew of 20. But they’re not just any group of firefighters – they’re all local to in and around the Slave Lake area.

The 2015 Slave Lake Aboriginal Wildland Firefighting Crew

Wildfire operations officer Kevin Parkinson started building the crew in 2013. He knew there were 12 Aboriginal communities in the Slave Lake area with many experienced firefighters and he planned to tap into that.

They’re also the only Aboriginal 20-person firefighting crew in Alberta. Aboriginal people have been a valuable firefighting resource for decades, but this set of firefighters brings a wealth of firefighting experience, area knowledge and flexibility directly to the Slave Lake area. Last year, the crew started in early March and worked until late October, which is a longer employment period than most firefighting crews.

The Aboriginal communities in the area were introduced to the idea early in the planning stages. Kevin said the feedback was extremely positive and the program was well supported.

“Now, other Aboriginal firefighters see this crew and want to be a part of it. There’s a level of pride that is spreading in the area. Seeing a local community-based crew like this in every area would be a great benefit to the province.”

~Kevin Parkinson, Wildlife Operations Officer

Not only does Slave Lake benefit from the crew’s seasoned firefighters, a longer working period and extensive area knowledge, these firefighters have also become spokespeople for promoting wildfire prevention. In turn, the strengthened relationship with the firefighters in turn enhances the community involvement in key programs like FireSmart.

Crew leader Cori Okimaw says the firefighters are looking forward to an exciting fire season of traveling throughout Alberta, fighting wildfires and protecting communities. “We have some new firefighters this year, but there are over 40 years of firefighting experience between us. We are a close family and we look after each other.”

Kevin firmly believes in empowering firefighters and communities to create their own success. One way he does this is by encouraging the crew to make recommendations for vacant positions. “They know their community members better than I do as an outsider. When we needed to fill some open spots on the crew last year, the crew took ownership and pride. We still provide oversight, but the crew as a whole makes the decision. Not the leader, not the supervisor, the whole crew.”

Each spring, Slave Lake area staff report back to the Aboriginal chiefs and councils, keeping them in the loop on the vision of the program. Kevin plans to support the program and continue community outreach. He’d also like to see more crews like this one across Alberta.

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