B.C. Liberals shovel money from back of fire trucks

What could happen? That someone could drop a cigarette and start a fire? Sure, we knew all that. That's why we have firefighting budgets there.

-- Premier Gordon Campbell,

September 2, 2003

The B.C. Liberal government was warned strongly in 2001 by its own director of forest protection that a planned 35-percent cut to his budget would result in disastrous fires hitting communities and costs of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a confidential document obtained by the Georgia Straight through a freedom-of-information request.

Cuts of $17.1 million to the fire-preparedness budget were slated to be 60-percent complete by March 2004, but last year B.C. forest-industry companies were hit with increased tree-farm rent to replace the money cut by the Forests Ministry.

But despite the devastating fires of 2003 in Kelowna, Barriere, and elsewhere that cost British Columbia $375 million in firefighting expenses, and despite advice in the confidential memo that fire prevention would dramatically reduce those costs, the B.C. government has refused to increase the fire-preparedness budget and has still cut $30 million from the direct firefighting budget.

Public-accounts documents for 2003 ­04 show "external recoveries" of $11.2 million for the fire-preparedness budget, with about $8.5 million of that coming from the tree-farm rent increase.

Because more than 1,250 forest fires in B.C. this year have eaten up an average of $3.4 million a day and have already exhausted the $55 million budgeted for the entire fire season (and have cost, at press time, approximately another $10 million), the issue of fire prevention is important.

But the provincial government has been secretive in dealing with the sensitive issue after at least 334 homes and many businesses were destroyed last year. Residents and business owners questioned the government's ability to deal with the forest-fire crisis.

The freedom-of-information request filed by the Straight in September 2003 is indicative of government secrecy. And the document obtained--after nine months of appeals all the way to the FOI commissioner's office--shows why the B.C. Liberals were reluctant to have it released.

The October 5, 2001, memo was a response to the newly elected Liberal government's "core review" process, which demanded a 35-percent reduction in Forests Ministry expenses, including the protection program.

Submitted by Dave Hames, then-director of the Forest Protection Branch, it predicted disastrous results if the 35-percent cuts were made. Hames warned that:

"Direct Fire costs will increase significantly due to the reduced capacity to prevent, detect and respond to fires.

33% increase in preventable human caused fires.

IA [initial attack] success rate will decrease to 60% from 93%

Fire suppression costs will likely increase by $64 million

$1 reduction in Preparedness costs equates to a $4 increase in Direct Fire [costs]

1% reduction in IA success rates equates to 21 additional project fires which causes $100K [$100,000] per fire;

313% increase to the area burned, destroying 141,000 hectares of forest land with the loss of $820M [million] in product value.

Reduced capacity to respond to multiple fires threatening communities and real properties....

Compromised fireline worker safety with increased liability."

The Hames warnings came shortly after a June 2001 report by Auditor General Wayne Strelioff outlining serious concerns about the likelihood of enormous fires.

"Fire experts fear that if actions are not taken soon to reduce the risks associated with interface fires, it is only a matter of time before these fires will exceed firefighters' capability to contain them and that this might lead to significant loss of life and property," Strelioff wrote.

Despite the warnings, the government failed to implement many of the auditor general's recommendations and continued with cuts to the Forests Ministry, including cutting budgeted direct firefighting costs from $85 million in the 2001 ­02 budget to $55 million in this year's budget. The government spent more than $300 million extra due to the 2003 wildfires.

The government's response to the Hames document is also indicative of its apparent attempt to avoid the issues raised.

Don McDonald, public-affairs spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, told the Straight on July 12 that because the 2003 ­04 "external recoveries" of $11.2 million meant no cuts were ultimately made to the fire-preparedness budget, there was nothing to worry about.

"You seem to be going to a lot of work for a story that seems not to have a lot to it," McDonald said.

McDonald admitted that although the budget had not been cut by 35 percent as originally planned, this year's budget had not been increased from the previous year either. He said the direct firefighting budget is more important than the fire-preparedness budget.

"I don't understand where you're going here, Bill. I mean, the real issue is not on the side of the budget you're talking about. The real issue is on what you do on direct fire, and on direct fire we spent $375 million in the Ministry of Forests and we spent an additional $125 million across government to manage a catastrophic situation."

McDonald said the "Firestorm 2003" provincial review by Gary Filmon, a former Manitoba Conservative premier, made clear that the government had a high success rate in containing and fighting fires despite the huge number of blazes and the critical situation. (Political Connections pointed out in October 2003 that Greg Lyle, Filmon's former principal secretary in Manitoba, subsequently became Gordon Campbell's chief of staff, a position he left after the 1996 election.)

McDonald was also highly critical of the Hames document.

"I would recommend that Dave Hames and you read the Filmon report and read it carefully," he said. "In the most catastrophic year, we managed an 89-percent IA success rate. We contained most of the fires."

McDonald compared Hames's memo to comments by Kelowna fire chief Gerry Zimmerman questioning provincial handling of the fires.

"You know, it's kind of like Gerry Zimmerman sometimes offering opinions without reading the facts, and you've got to go with the facts," McDonald said. The Forests Ministry has trained more fire crews, added water bombers, and taken other steps to prepare for fires, he said.

McDonald said he had "no idea" if the Filmon review had been given a copy of Hames's document.

The Forests Ministry's own submission to Filmon also raised budget problems: "The Protection Program preparedness budget of $49 million continues to be subject to significant pressures. In addition to costs offloaded to the program over the past several years, wage settlements have increased salary costs by over $1.5 million. As well, inflation increases under aircraft contracts increase costs by about $200,000 each year. These have resulted in impacts on preparedness funds for both fire fighting crews and Forest Protection staff."

But when asked about these worries, McDonald appeared less than concerned.

"You've been in government. You know what happens. People are always trying to get more budget for staff, and on the other side, people are always looking for pockets of money to move around," McDonald said. He added that all of Filmon's recommendations had been implemented.

The fact remains, however, that when it comes to spending more to prevent devastating forest fires, the B.C. Liberals have just said no.