Given the heroic efforts of responders, this is not a good time to focus on fire fighting deficiencies. However, with a million acres burned, smoke hazing continental skies and the homes of thousands threatened, our observations should be retained. Later, those who obstruct preparedness must be held to account. Specifically, I mean Forest Minister Pat Bell, Finance Minister Colin Hansen and their boss, whatshisname.
The 2010 budget for fire-fighting in BC is $52 million, an amount barely able to fund a few weeks of efforts presently needed. Is 2010 an anomaly that caught the province by surprise? Not at all. In 2009, forest fire costs were more than six times the amount budgeted and the combined funding deficiencies since 2003 total almost $1 billion.
There are two reasons for low-balling the fire fighting budget. It allows the Finance Minister to headline more desirable deficit or surplus numbers and it lessens the risk of undesired spending in years with low incidence of fire. That is because of zero-balance budgeting under which civil servants exhaust each year’s spending allocations, so that increases can be requested the year following.
The Liberal government says we should not be concerned about their budget methods because in the end, the province will spend whatever it takes to deal with emergencies. However, their policy is worse than inept, it guarantees sub-optimum fire response and endangers lives. It is undisputed that successful fire containment depends on quick response on the fire scene. That requires personnel and technology nearby, no matter where an outbreak is located. Unlike old days, there is almost no use for untrained labor. Sustained action fire suppression requires knowledgeable, experienced, physically fit personnel with skill sets appropriate to the particular fire activity. These people need transport, equipment, catering, accommodation, supervision and relief. Additionally, fresh teams must be on standby at fire centers throughout the province, ready to respond to new outbreaks.
These human resources do not wander in off the street or respond to job postings. Unique people are needed with highly specialized capabilities. In 2010, the BC Forest Service is scouring the world for firefighters and already relies on hundreds imported from other jurisdictions only available if their home regions continue to grant leave. In difficult years, which now seem commonplace, the lack of trained crews requires using workers below desired standards.
While ground crews are the true heart of fire fighting, air attack capability is important. An experienced water bomber pilot emphasized to me that the fire fighters’ arsenal must include a variety of weapons, particularly for aerial suppression. Helicopters are often most available. They are maneuverable, can deliver crews and dump modest water loads with quick turnarounds and precision. Fixed wing craft working fires in BC range from the ancient, but large, Martin Mars flying boats to single engine Air Tractors and others originally designed for agriculture or aging military or passenger aircraft converted for the use.
Many of the aircraft in use are based on designs created sixty years ago or more. For example, the Convair CV-580 water bomber that crashed with loss of two in BC this summer is a variant of a design that first flew in 1946. Equipped with turboprop engines, it was one of the more effective available in this province. Questions remain about safety and effectiveness of the entire fleet. The high capacity Martin Mars, designed in the thirties, is limited in areas that it can be safely used. STOL craft with loads of power and agility are desirable and probably the best all round aerial suppression machine in the world is the Canadian built Bombardier 415 SuperScooper.
The airplane has exceptional low-level, low-speed manoeurability with steep descent and climb capabilities. It can scoop over 6,000 liters of water in 12 seconds. Outstanding turnaround times result in delivery of more water, with greater accuracy, than much larger craft. This is the one aircraft specifically designed for fire fighting. Besides unmatched efficiency it offers outstanding safety and appears to be ideally suited to British Columbia. However, a fleet of six, with spares, would cost $180 million.
For once, this would be a perfect project for a private-public partnership. In the months these STOL craft are unneeded for fire fighting in British Columbia, they could be used in the south for fires or reconfigured for transport, search and rescue, air ambulance or humanitarian relief. Newfoundland is soon to take delivery of four Bombardier 415s while there are none flying in BC.
To return to my first point, the provincial government dedicates so little in the usual initial budget that planners are unable to prepare for what has become a normal fire season. They must rely on crews that are too few, on workers from other jurisdiction who may not be available, on inadequate numbers of fire centers located strategically around the province, on too few highly trained managers and inadequate equipment, from hand tools and vehicles to aircraft. Higher base funding could change the fire suppression effort completely.
It is morally wrong to ask pilots to fly in ancient aircraft not designed for fire fighting and, by not acquiring modern machines, we expose flyers to unsafe conditions and obtain sub-optimum results. That leads to unpredictable economic losses and unnecessary threats to human safety. As fire fighters in BC’s Cariboo told news reporters this week:
“We’eve had a lot of fires that, once we got to them, there was not a whole lot we could do. The only thing stopping these massive fires now is mother nature.”
Categories: BC Liberals