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MD volunteer crisis exacerbated by housing costs and availability

“We can see that this is not unique to the Bow Valley or Alberta. It is a North American issue. I have read some stats that we have lost 100,000 volunteers in the last decade across North America.”
House Fire
The MD of Bighorn is facing a volunteer crisis, seen especially in its three volunteer fire departments.

MD OF BIGHORN – The ongoing volunteer crunch is continuing to be felt across the country, including the Bow Valley.

It is an issue facing many of the smaller fire services in the region, but with a widespread municipality such as the Municipal District of Bighorn the concern is highlighted even more significantly.

“We can see that this is not unique to the Bow Valley or Alberta,” said Andrew Box, the MD of Bighorn's fire chief and director of protective services. “It is a North American issue. I have read some stats that we have lost 100,000 volunteers in the last decade across North America.”

Box and Canmore Fire-Rescue Chief Lance Bushie touched on the concerns on a segment on CTV W5, which examined the broader issues faced in Canada.

While Canmore is localized in a relatively largely small urban setting, Bighorn encompasses a large rural area with three fire halls.

The busiest station is Exshaw, which accounts for 80 per cent of the total call volume. The hall receives about 200 calls a year.

“An issue we have is very few people who live here, actually work in Exshaw,” Box said. “We are a bedroom community, so our primary concern [for volunteers] is Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

The Jamieson Road fire hall covers a small area, but it is primarily acreages. Due to the cost of owning property there, very few young people have moved into the area. This same problem is found at the Ghost fire hall, which covers a rural acreage area with an aging demographic.

“In the [W5] interview, I joked at 51 years old, I am one of the younger guys on the crew,” Box said. “With it being more of an acreage lifestyle, the prices in that area are not attracting the young homebuyer.”

Box said years ago, people left Canmore for cheaper real estate in Exshaw, but in the last decade there has been a migration from Exshaw to cheaper real estate in Cochrane. The move to Cochrane is all too common for many people in the valley, with housing prices continuing to soar and being far out of reach for most residents.

According to Statistics Canada data from the 2021 census, the bulk of 640 primary household maintainers in Bighorn are 35 to 44 – 170 or 26.56 per cent and 55 to 64 – 175 for 27.34 per cent. The census also found 160 of those households were spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs.

Box, who has been a volunteer with the MD for 16 years, believes many people want to contribute and help their communities, and volunteering is a good way to do that.

“There is an excitement that goes along with emergency response,” Box said. “There is also an opportunity to get training and learn things that you typically won’t get in a non-emergency response setting.”

The fire halls themselves are much more than a place that keeps fire trucks out of the rain. They can also be a social hub for a rural community like the MD of Bighorn.

“It is a big part of the community, and it gives us the opportunity to operate in that emergency response arena,” Box said. “It also assists the community through a number of visible actions such as fundraising and things like that.”

For anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter in the MD of Bighorn, Box encourages them to visit the MD of Bighorn website and look at fire services.

“Our typical stipulation is you have to be at least 18 years old, in fairly good medical condition and you need to live or work full-time in the MD.”

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