Will BC fireline contractors see more work as budgets shrink?

Fire protection planners in B.C. may be willing to consider more direct dependence on fireline contract crews as government’s wildfire preparedness budget shrinks.

Fire line contractors and reduced fire protection budgets

Clearly the proposed forest policy changes described by the minister of forests have implications for forest management areas such as environmental restoration, forest health and wildfire protection. However, fire protection has an immediate strategic shift to contemplate with major cuts anticipated in the annual preparedness budget that pays for government wildfire fighting equipment and crews. The situation is more acute considering that in many areas of the province we have managed to escape a major wildfire blow up in the last few years. Growing fuel accumulations resulting from our success at putting out fires over the decades now present a pent up potential for fires of unnatural intensities in the near future. The auditor general has also warned that governments in the province are not prepared for community-destroying interface fires.

My meetings with protection branch people clearly showed uncertainty functioning at a number of levels. It is foreseeable that fire centre managers and the protection branch will have to approach treasury to find the money to fight fires in the future, possibly on an individual wildfire basis. In this equation there is perhaps an increased role for fire line contractors who in the recent past have settled for the left-overs after provincial crews and out of province crews have filled the demand on the fire lines. This lack of activity has left many fire line contractors on the verge of extinction. They say if the province doesn’t treat them as a resource to be tended and developed they will fade as a reliable force for fighting fires in the province.

The recent budgetary developments may signal a return on the government’s part for more direct reliance on fire line contractors as part of government’s protection strategies. Wildfire protection is some of the most firmly held bureaucratic turf in the ministry of forests. And there are some good reasons for that. However, increased involvement from the fire line contractors and the entrepreneurial ingenuity that that might release in collaboration with the government’s own resource is an area the WSCA is committed to explore. In my meetings with senior protection people last week there is clearly an interest in starting some discussions in this direction. The tenor and direction of these talks will likely be shaped by the budget appropriated to fire protection next year.