CANADA: An internal audit of Yukon’s Wildland Fire Management branch has found deep problems with organization and oversight, making it susceptible to “possible theft and misappropriation of funds.”
In other words, fuel and gear could be routinely stolen, and there’s no way to know.
The 39-page draft report, obtained by CBC News, was carried out during the 2016-17 fiscal year by the government’s internal audit services and goes back several years. The report says the audit was conducted in response to a changing climate and new technologies.
The Wildland Fire branch spends about $15 million annually, responding to wildfires through the spring and summer. This year’s capital budget has earmarked $16.1 million for the branch.
The audit questions whether the branch is fully prepared for emergencies, because of the lack of proper controls. It says there is no proper management of costs for items such as fuel, material, and overtime for personnel.
Another failing it finds is the lack of an overall strategy and an operations plan.
It points to other Canadian jurisdictions which have revised their strategies for managing wildfires in recent years, adding that “the Fort McMurray fire showed us that operations need to change.”
Still, it notes that Yukon’s Wildland Fire Management “excels at initial attack, keeping Yukoners safe from wildland fire.”
Open to theft, fraud, misuse of assets
The audit identifies “many areas for improvements” in the branch.
“There is a reputational risk for [the Yukon government] if these improvements are not put in place, as they are a link to potential misappropriation of assets,” it reads.
The document doesn’t point to any specific acts of wrongdoing, nor does it reveal any firm proof of misappropriation — but it suggests the branch is wide open to abuse.
The problems are in how the branch tracks supplies, gear and equipment.
“There is no rigorous control around their management, no control over what has been purchased, used or lost and no comprehensive and accurate inventory,” it reads.
“Insufficient attention to oversight can lead to possible theft, fraud and misuse of government assets.”
It says there could also be “significant” safety issues, as the amount of equipment on hand could be different from what should be there, when it’s needed.
One particular concern was a lack of oversight on fuel supply and use.
“[With] continuing high fuel costs, government fleets have become the target of fuel theft. Without an accurate inventory management and reconciliation over the fuel, it is difficult to ensure there is no theft.”
The audit’s executive summary recommends that a comptroller be put into place to ensure that public funds are spent wisely.
‘Substantial amount of overtime’
Another area the audit examines is overtime costs.
It observes that Yukon Wildland firefighters work a “substantial amount of overtime” — for example, in 2015, $1.8 million was paid out in overtime, with the average employee receiving 72 per cent of their pay in overtime.
The same applies with what’s known as “comp time,” or time off taken in lieu of payment. The audit found that in 2016 there was a total of 1,078 hours, or “143 days between nine employees.”
It says the average fire season in Yukon is 148 days.
Further, it says “two employees made up 48 per cent of this comp-time.”
The audit noted there is no proof of a “challenge function regarding overtime authorization,” and says that carries a financial risk.
“Control of overtime needs to be strengthened … taking into consideration the WFM [Wildland Fire Management] culture that exists, WFM needs to pay more attention to overtime hours required.”
It says that “excessive” overtime also carries a safety risk, if firefighters are exhausted.
IT systems a ‘software hairball’
The report also found fault with the branch’s information technology, saying it uses a “hodgepodge of disconnected systems which causes bottlenecks and employee productivity issues.”
It says this “homegrown” approach has created a “software hairball,” and makes it difficult to get a real picture of the costs of operations.
The audit also questions the routine practice of “importing” firefighters from other jurisdictions when needed, asking whether Yukon resources could be hired instead.
The audit is not wholly critical, though — it concludes that the Wildland Fire Management operations are “commendable in their ability to extinguish fire,” and that employees take pride in their work, and enjoy camaraderie.