Cost of fighting B.C. forest fires already higher than all of last summer, with $206 million spent so far

28 July 2021

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CANADA – The cost of fighting wildfires in B.C. so far this year has exceeded the allocated budget for 2021-2022 and has already surpassed the total amount spent fighting fires last year.

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More than $206 million has been spent on wildfire suppression since April 1. The allocated budget is $136 million, however, the province has set aside an additional $1 billion to ensure extra resources can be provided.

“The B.C. government will always spend whatever is necessary to protect people and property. When actual costs exceed the direct fire budget allocation, the B.C. Wildfire Service has statutory authorization to spend additional funds,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Forests.

The $1 billion contingency is the largest “forecast allowance” ever in B.C. It can be allocated to other emergencies, including floods and may be shared across ministries.

Last year, fighting forest fires cost the province a total of $193.7 million.

The director of fire operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, Rob Schweitzer, said the number and size of the fires so far this year are double the 10-year average and that means the cost of fire suppression could end up double or triple what’s been spent to date.

“This is something we have seen, not just throughout this province but across western North America, where we’re seeing more extreme fire seasons, longer fire seasons and more intense fires, which is increasing the costs quite significantly to suppress these fires,” he said.

There were 252 fires burning in B.C. on Tuesday with 84 of them out of control. More than 3,700 properties are under 61 evacuation orders, 18,000 are under 85 evacuation alerts, and 5,000 people have registered under B.C.’s evacuation system.

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Schweitzer said he’s very concerned that some people have ignored evacuation orders and ended up having to be rescued, including some by helicopter.

“I am aware of at least three situations where we had to divert our resources on the ground or from the air to assist with evacuating people who got caught behind the fire line and their escape route was cut off,” he said.

“I think there’s many people who’ve lived on the land in these rural areas and feel a real need to stay behind and defend their properties,” said Schweitzer.

“My message to them is although you’ve lived on that land for generations, even our seasoned firefighters are seeing behaviours and conditions that we’ve never seen before. You may have seen fires before but the behaviour and the traits that we’re experiencing are much more concerning than we’ve seen in the past.”

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The wildfires and evacuation orders have led to the cancellation of eight COVID-19 vaccination clinics over the past three weeks.

Dr. Penny Ballem, the executive lead of B.C.’s immunization rollout, said cancelled clinics were either moved to another location or rescheduled at the same site.

“We figure out whether it can be rescheduled locally in the same place in a short period of time. If not, we arrange for the nearest place for people to be diverted to, and often make arrangements for transportation for members of a community who have to go farther away, farther afield to get their vaccine — and, for sure, as soon as it’s safe we will come back and usually re-establish a clinic.”

Ballem said most of the affected clinics were in the Interior Health Authority region, and some clinics were also cancelled during the heat dome late last month.

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B.C.’s provincial health officer warned those in the fire regions that extreme high temperatures are coming their way, with up to 40 C predicted in the Interior and South Okanagan, starting on Friday. The province has issued a heat warning, effective Wednesday. Dr. Bonnie Henry says those most susceptible are the very young and the very old, along with people who suffer from asthma, heart disease and diabetes.

“If we have people with those conditions in our lives, we need to check on them. We need to be supporting them to find places that are cool with clean air. Many municipalities are setting up cooling places, or go to the library or the mall where there are air conditioning systems.”

Henry added that it’s more important to find ways of cooling down than avoiding wildfire smoke.

“Heat is the most dangerous of what we’re seeing so if we’re closing windows because of the smoke, we need to be aware of the heat and that is important for people to cool down and stay hydrated,” she said.

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