The same day air tankers took to the sky to douse wildfires near Slave Lake, Paul Lane was telling his pilots the grim news that last week’s provincial budget could put them out of work.

Despite coming out of what Lane describes as “the busiest fire season in 25 years,” the provincial government has cut its tanker contracts by $5.1 million, and its base wildfire management budget by a further $9.6 million.

The company of which Lane is vice-president, Air Spray, has been supplying air tanker contracts to the Alberta government for most of the company’s 50-year history.

This year, that contract has been reduced from 123 days to 93 days, putting Lane’s company out of pocket and firefighting coverage at risk.

In Alberta, disasters such as fires and floods are paid for out of emergency funds, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says that will still be the case with fires this year.

The problem is that none of that cash is factored into the budget; in the case of a particularly severe wildfire year, the money will just have to come from somewhere else.

Base funding includes money for the Fire Smart program and operating the wildfire program (items such as staff, uniforms and technology), while the cost of firefighters, fire equipment, operating fire camps and bases comes out of general revenue when it’s needed.

Lane said two companies provide air tanker services to Alberta, and called cutting the contracts “playing with fire.”

Once the contracts run out Aug. 16, the province will hire the planes on an as-needed basis, guaranteeing work for only three days at a time.

“If we get a longer-term contract somewhere else from Aug. 16, then we’re going to go,” Lane said, leaving the province with no air tankers and nobody to fly them.

“Not only is this bad for us, it’s terrible for the province, because if there are hot, dry days through August and September … then they’re banking on us being here or coming back,” he said.

“This undermines the credibility of the entire air tanker program in the province.”