With more helicopters and more air tankers, the B.C. Wildfire Service is ready for the 2020 fire season, says Forest Minister Doug Donaldson.
It will certainly be a different forest fire season with crews dealing with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and an expected dry summer.
“Today we might know what kind of wildfire season we’ll face this summer,” Donaldson said Thursday. “We’re ready. We’re ready for the wildfire season as it presents itself. We have the funding, we have the equipment, we have the expertise, and we have the people to deal with whatever’s in store.”
He said there are about 1,700 B.C. Wildfire Service personnel ready to fight fires. Earlier this year the provincial government budgeted $136 million for firefighting, an increase of $35 million over 2019.
“That is a recognition of historical firefighting costs and to allow for response capacity, community engagement, and communication resources to help communities be prepared for wildfires,” said Donaldson.
The increased funding has also helped increase the fleet of air services the Wildfire Service will use to combat fires. The province has contracted 20 air tankers and eight bird-dog planes, which assist the tankers. The increased tanker fleet will allow the service to deliver 15 per cent more fire retardant than it could last year and it will have 150 per cent more skimmer capacity … tankers that can skim water from a lake or river.
The province has also helped B.C. communities with fire prevention through the Community Resiliency Program which has spent $18.6 million to help fire proof communities. The province has also funding, through the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., about $233 million worth of grants for wildfire risk reduction, reforestation, forest rehabilitation, habitat restoration, and increasing awareness.
“While the start of the 2020 fire season has been relatively normal, so far, we must remain vigilant,” he said. “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra precautions to minimize the number of human-caused fires. These types of fires are entirely preventable and divert valuable resources from naturally-occuring fires.”
He said in 2017, 27 per cent of fires were human-caused and in 2018, 40 per cent were human-caused.
The additional challenge, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are responding to wildfires and carrying out the rest of our work differently this year because we’re focused on minimizing the risk of COVID-19 exposure for our staff, as well as our partners and the communities that we serve,” said Jody Lucius, superintendent of communications and engagement for the B.C. Wildfire Service.
The Wildfire Service has implemented new sanitization protocols for when staff are travelling, it has non-medical masks for staff, and updated how the fire camps operate, including eliminating the multi-person tents. Camp kits are also being provided to allow staff to stay at a camp longer.
There have been 139 wildfires so far this year, which is down from the average of 170 fires by this time.