High and dry?

A dry spring means the Campbell administration could blow its direct forest fire fighting expenses estimate, according to provincial New Democrat finance critic Bruce Ralston. In February, the administration projected it would spend $62 million on such expenses in 2009/10 - $46 million less than the average amount spent on forest fire fighting over the past ten fiscal years. This, despite the fact the government's own climate action plan reports global warming could "result in more wildfires."

Back then, the party's forests and range critic Bob Simpson told Public Eye, "This budget is low balling every cost to government because it's a budget that's simply designed so the premier can put the smallest possible deficit on paper before the election."

"We know that we are very close - it could be this season, it could be the next season - to a catastrophic fire event. The ministry of forests knows that," he continued.

"So taking the rolling average and scaling it down so you can get a smaller amount assigned to fire is simply a deficit reduction measure. It's not a reality that's going to happen on the ground."

For a time, though, it seemed Mr. Simpson's reality wouldn't happen on the ground. On April 14, a government forest fire season forecast predicted colder than normal temperatures until July, with slightly higher than normal precipitation.

But, in an interview, fire information officer Alyson Couch acknowledged the forests are drier than forecast, resulting in fires that are budgeted to have cost the government $6.51 million between April 1 and May 30.

As first reported by The Vancouver Sun's Mary Frances Hill, that expenditure is significantly higher than the $3.37 million spent over the same period in 2008. In fact, since 2001, the only time that amount was higher was in 2006.

Ms. Couch cautioned this may or may not be an indication of how the fire season will proceed over the coming months. "It's hard to see what it could do," she said.

But if conditions continue, that could be bad news for both British Columbia and its governing party, according to Mr. Ralston.

"Obviously, what they were trying to do in the budget is shoehorn as much into the envelope as they could without running the budget deficit number up. So this is another area where they shaved below what was really accurate or prudent. And it may come back to bite them."

In response, a forests and range ministry spokesperson stated "it's inherently difficult to forecast fire-fighting costs" with the government's estimate reflecting "continued improvement to how we manage wildfires - for example upgrades to dispatch systems, air-tanker bases and training programs."

As a result, "there's an expectation fire costs will decrease over time." Although, "government is always prepared to spend what's necessary to protect the public."

The following is a complete copy of forest fire fighting expenditures between April 1 and May 30 since 2001.

***

Fire budget to date (April 1 to May 30)

2009 $6.51 million
2008 $3.37 million
2007 $3.24 million
2006 $8.97 million
2005 $5.97 million
2004 $4.70 million
2003 $3.26 million
2002 $2.19 million
2001 $3.10 million

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