With days left for a 30-day contract to use the Mars water bombers on forest fires the province has announced no intentions of extending the agreement.
The arrangement between Coulson Flying Tankers and B.C.’s Ministry of Forests expires on Tuesday. Over the last month the Hawaii mars bomber was deployed from it’s Sproat Lake base several times, but more firefighting action past Aug. 25 now seems unlikely.
“It has not been decided as to whether there will be a further extension to the contract,” said the province’s chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek in an email to the Times. “Any decision to extend the contract will be based on the projected level of fire activity and operational need.”
In recent weeks there has been no shortage of fire activity requiring the 27,200-litre drop capacity of the Mars bomber. On Aug. 2 the aircraft dropped 108,00 litres of water in one hour on a wildfire by Harrison Lake in B.C.’s interior – a provincial record for fire suppression, said the bomber’s owner Wayne Coulson. On Aug. 4 the massive World War Two-era plane dropped on several fires sparked by lightning around Great Central Lake, and last month another mission was made to attack a Blaze near Nelson on July 18.
The aircraft has fought forest fires on Vancouver Island and throughout North America for decades. In 2014 it sat idle after the province opted for a contract with smaller air tankers provided by Abbotsford-based Conair. The Mars bomber was reconsidered by the province this spring when a severe fire season was forecasted, and so far this prediction has been fulfilled with over 292,000 hectares of forest burned. Last year 369,169 hectares was affected – the most B.C. had seen in over a decade.
Despite the contract with Coulson, the bomber was left on Sproat Lake while a nearby forest fire quickly grew to 350 hectares on the lake’s shore. Only one air tanker dropped on Dog Mountain the day the fire was discovered on July 4, and over the following week the province’s air suppression resources were focused on larger incidents elsewhere.
After days of the Dog Mountain blaze growing, Minister of Forests Steve Thomson announced the Mars would be deployed July 8.
“We felt we had the appropriate resources available, but given the extraordinary fire situation this year that we’re in, we’re looking to every possible tool with our toolbox,” Thomson said in an interview last month.
Among the 16 air tankers the province has at it’s disposal, the Mars bomber appears to not be the preferred choice, according to a comparison made by the Ministry of Forests this summer.
“Because of its relatively slow airspeed and large size, the Martin Mars is more difficult to integrate into B.C.’s firefighting operations, including close air support for firefighters on the ground,” stated a July 10 release from the provincial department.
The current standby cost for the aircraft is $15,000 a day, plus $6,000 a hour for flight time and costs of approximately $5,000 in fuel for each hour in the air, stated the province.