2015 is shaping up to be one of B.C.’s most devastating forest fire years on record, with the government already spending more than $97 million, far in excess of its annual $63 million forest-fire-fighting budget.
The active fire count stands at more than 180 at time of writing, and the B.C. government expects 30 new fires to start every day because of the unusually dry conditions.
Some forestry operations have shut down because of the fires. TimberWest, the largest private timberland owner in Western Canada, has suspended harvesting on its 800,000 acres of forest as well as virtually all harvesting on Crown land for which it has a licence to log.
“It’s unusual to be shut down for a fire hazard so early in the year,” TimberWest vice-president Domenico Iannidinardo told Business in Vancouver.
TimberWest pays fees to logging companies to conduct the work, meaning those companies also take a hit when TimberWest suspends harvesting.
Fires have yet to burn this year on TimberWest land. If they start, the company would suffer an even bigger setback.
“We have insurance,” Iannidinardo said. “But premiums and deductibles go up if you’re a repeat offender.”
Last year was the worst year on record for total hectares destroyed, said John Innes, dean of the forestry faculty at the University of British Columbia. Approximately 369,000 hectares burned, one-third of which was harvestable timber, totalling a loss of $1 billion.
If conditions don’t change, this year will be worse.
Small B.C. towns that depend on tourism have also been affected.
Several fires have been burning in the Pemberton area, but organizers of the Pemberton Music Festival have said their event will not be cancelled. Visitors to Whistler donned masks in an attempt to block out the thick smoke.
A fire burning near Nelson, which has now been contained, prompted the Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism organization to post a message on Facebook saying that West Kootenay towns are still safe to visit.
Firefighting is expensive.
The B.C. government has a $2.5 million annual contract with Conair Aerial Firefighting to make available four Fire Bosses, which are amphibious air tankers that can drop water, foam or retardant on a blaze. The government pays Conair approximately $500 per hour to operate each Fire Boss.
The priciest plane the government hires is likely Coulson Flying Tankers’ Martin Mars. Because of high costs, it was initially not contracted for the season, but last week the Ministry of Forests confirmed a one-month agreement to use the water bomber. The Martin Mars, which will be stationed near Sproat Lake on Vancouver Island, costs about $4,000 per hour plus fuel for the first 45 hours and $18,800 plus fuel for additional hours.
“Fighting fires is far more than a business,” said Conair’s director of business development Jeff Berry. “It’s a passion. One hundred per cent of our company is focused on supporting the people out there who are dealing with the fire situation in Western Canada and Alaska.”
Sid Peltier, owner of Terrace-based White River Helicopters, has four helicopters. They are used to fight fires in rotation with those of other operators in his region.
Peltier’s helicopters, which are either light or intermediate in size, cost about $1,900 per hour plus fuel, which could bump the per-hour rate up to $2,200.
“This year the mining sector is quite quiet, so we’ve had more availability to respond to the fires,” he said. “Work fighting fires is what we call buckshee because it’s that extra kick if we have aircraft available.”
All of Peltier’s helicopters use Bambi Buckets – giant cups that can pick water up from lakes and drop it on fires.
Delta-based SEI Industries Ltd., which makes Bambi Buckets, has seen revenue surge in the past few years. Firefighting division manager Shawn Bethel said he expects his division’s sales this year to top $8 million for the first time.
Last year, more than 40% of the $297.9 million the government spent fighting forest fires was spent on aviation; 43.8% went to salaries and professional service contracts. Another 12% was spent on supplies and equipment rental.
Climate change is expected to make B.C.’s summers drier and hotter and its wildfire seasons longer.