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B.C. forest firefighting budget hits $136 million

Firefighters to be COVID-19 ready going into forests

B.C.’s government has allocated $136 million for the 2020 forest fire season, a jump of $35 million from 2019 and $73 million over the 2018 budget.

“We’re ready for the wildfire season,” Minister of Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Doug Donaldson said May 21.

But, Donaldson said, when it comes to firefighting this year, there come extra precautions added into the mix with COVID-19 precautions for fire crews.

Donaldson said the increases recognize historical firefighting costs – particularly the high costs of the past few fire seasons - and allow for more response capacity, community engagement and communication resources to help communities better prepare.

The minister said B.C.’s long-term contracted air tanker fleet has been bolstered to provide 15% more fire retardant capacity.

As well, a six-plane skimmer group has been added to provide 150% more skimmer capacity. That capacity includes two Avro RJ-85 air tankers. Helicopters also remain in the mix.

For firefighters, the B.C. Wildfire Service had begun making changes before the pandemic, creating five-person crew kits that enable it to deploy a fire camp in a smaller format.

The service has purchased 25 portable handwashing stations for use before staff members go into kitchen units to get food. As well, the service has shifted away from large, multi-person ranger tents to individual, cabin-style tents.

“We’ve moved away from multi-person tents,” said service superintendent of communications and engagement Jody Lucius said. “We’re reducing reliance on larger firefighter camps.”

“These actions will help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in fire camps, but they were in progress well before this pandemic began,” the service said in a statement. “They are part of the BC Wildfire Service’s ongoing focus on managing firefighter fatigue and supporting the health and well-being of staff while they’re deployed on a fire.”

Another new tool the service has deployed is the B.C. Wildfire Service mobile app, which gives users real-time wildfire information and an interactive map customizable to display a variety of fire-related data. Advisories related to open burning bans and prohibitions, area restrictions, evacuation alerts and evacuation orders are also available on the app.

As well, the app features a “Report a Fire” function that will automatically generate map coordinates of a person reporting a fire and lists questions a person may be asked when reporting a wildfire.