CANADA – Manitoba has formally handed over its forest firefighting services to the private sector, including the use of its water bomber fleet.
The government announced Thursday that it has made a deal with Babcock Canada Inc., an engineering support company with a history in providing aerial emergency services, to perform the suppression of wildfires from now on.
“Our government is committed to protecting Manitobans from wildfires and that’s what this agreement delivers,” said Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler.
“It will ensure faster response times, enhanced safety and a superior aircraft maintenance program. It will make Manitoba’s wildfire suppression system even better.”
The government will retain ownership of its seven active water bombers and lease them to Babcock Canada, which will operate the bombers.
“The aircraft will always serve Manitoba’s needs first, and may only be deployed outside the province with the government’s consent and direction,” said Schuler.
Schuler said the government estimates the move will save a minimum of $1 million per year.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, said the change will affect 52 jobs, including pilots, mechanics and clerical roles. She said it’s not clear how many of those people will be taken on by the private company.
“Our understanding is that the new company coming in is going to be selecting some [provincial staff],” she said. “We don’t know who, we don’t know how many. We don’t know which departments.”
Schuler said the government is under the impression the company would like to hire some of the provincial staff, and that it will meet with impacted government employees in the near future to discuss job opportunities under the new operating structure.
“I don’t want to get into labour negotiations. That is between the corporation and the employees.”
The changes will take effect in spring.
Air ambulance privatization process underway
Gawronsky has voiced concerns in the past that privatization could create the potential that water bomber planes may not be at the ready when fires break out.
“That concern is still out there, and Manitobans should be concerned about it,” she said Thursday. “How is this government going to guarantee that they’re going to be here when they’re needed?”
The province is also in the process of privatizing other elements of its air services, including air ambulance.
The province put out a request for proposals earlier this year for bids on taking over duties from the provincial government’s air services branch.
The majority of Canadian provinces already use private carriers for all wildfire suppression services, Schuler said, noting Manitoba currently uses private carriers for some services.
Babcock, which has more than 30 years of aerial firefighting experience throughout Europe, will work in partnership with Air Spray, an experienced provider of fire-suppression services with long-term contracts in a number of Canadian provinces and the United States, Schuler said.
The company will also give the province access to updated Bird Dog aircraft, a type of plane that flies ahead of water bombers to mark their path.
Schuler said Manitoba’s current Bird Dogs are out-of-date, and accessing Babcock’s planes will save the province hundreds of millions by eliminating the need to replace the provincial fleet.
An RFP process is underway for air ambulance services as well as general transportation air services, such as flights provided to Manitoba Hydro.
Once those processes are completed, the agreements will be publicly disclosed, Schuler said.
There are 91 provincial employees who currently work in the Government Air Services branch.