Forest fire protection money dries up

Communities looking to better protect themselves from forest fires may soon be doing so without any financial support from the provincial government, Public Eye has learned. Six years ago, following the 2003 firestorm, the government committed $37 million toward helping those communities draft wildfire protection plans and act on them. That included financing costly fuel treatment projects, which clear or thin wooded areas that, if left alone, could increase the chances or severity of such a blaze. But a natural resource operations ministry spokesperson has confirmed the money for all that work has run out - three months after another devastating fire season and ten months after the province's independent forest practices watchdog warned "ideal conditions" now exist for "catastrophic wildfires affecting tens of thousands of people."

The watchdog concluded dealing with those conditions was a "matter of considerable urgency." Nevertheless, the government hasn't immediately committed to making additional funding available to deal with that matter.

Instead, the spokesperson said the province is "working with the federal government to identify new funding sources" and that it's "hoped the strategic wildfire prevention initiative can continue in the future."

That's not good enough for provincial New Democrat forestry critic Norm Macdonald. In an interview with Public Eye, Mr. Macdonald said, "If this was a priority - the priority that it should be - they would find the funds. They would absolutely find the funds. And they need to do that."

"It's not only something that you do for the safety of the community. It's also a cost-effective way of dealing with wildfires that are predictable. And a very small percentage of the work that has been identified as needing to be done has actually been done."

In the government's defence, the natural resource ministry spokesperson said provincial funding has helped more than 230 local governments and First Nations communities complete wildfire protection plans. The spokesperson also stated 42,500 hectares have been subject to fuel treatments to-date.

But that represents just six percent of the 684,727 hectares identified as being at a high risk of a forest fire - with the government estimating in 2004 that clearing or thinning those wooded areas would cost more than $250 million.

Six years later the province has claimed the actual area requiring fuel treatments is much lower, while the cost per hectare of those treatments is much higher. Regardless, Mr. Macdonald said "communities absolutely not have resources to deal with this work."

The forest critic noted former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon's independent report on the 2003 firestorm made it clear "the province needed to take the lead and they needed to be the ones that were responsible for getting the work done. And they have dropped the ball on that all along the way. And this is another significant lapse."

Indeed, in a separate interview, independent legislator Bill Bennett echoed Mr. Macdonald's concern about whether the government has adequately acted on all of Mr. Filmon's recommendations.

"Never mind trying to check off boxes because that's what you want to do," he advised. "Take a really good hard look at the intent - not just the words but the spirit of his recommendations and ask yourself, as a ministry as a government, whether or not we've really achieved his recommendations. And I don't think we have."

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