How B.C. budgets for wildfires: 'Choose an arbitrary number. Put it in the books'

As B.C. once again blows through its budget for fighting wildfires, Premier John Horgan has acknowledged the government's usual method for estimating the need is "laughable."

Province budgeted $63M this year but has spent $274M; annual prevention budget tough to pin down

Verne Tom photographs a wildfire burning along a logging road approximately 20 kilometres southwest of Fort St. James, B.C., on Aug. 15. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

As B.C. once again blows through its budget for fighting wildfires, Premier John Horgan has acknowledged the government's usual method for estimating the need is "laughable."

The province has already spent close to $274 million this year in direct firefighting costs, more than four times the budget of $63 million.

"Clearly, the traditional means of budgeting for fire season is laughable. And it's not something that's just developed in the last 13 months — it's been going on for 30 years," Horgan told reporters Tuesday, as he toured wildfire operations in Prince George.

"Choose an arbitrary number. Put it in the books and hope for the best."

Only once in the last decade has the province spent less than $63 million on fighting wildfires. The average cost is more like $214 million. Last year, during the worst season in recorded history, B.C. spent $568 million.

Horgan said the province has a budgetary surplus this year, a situation that is expected to continue for the next three years and will spend what is necessary to fight the fires.

"We have contingency funds. We have a forecast allowance. I'm confident that will not disrupt the balance of our budget this year," he said.

The premier told CBC's Daybreak North earlier Tuesday that something needs to change but did not elaborate on how the government plans to improve its budgeting for wildfire season.

"We should be in a better position to plan for these things, now that we know the challenges and the magnitude of those challenges," Horgan said.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, second from the left, addresses the media in Prince George on Tuesday morning as wildfires rage around the region. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Of course, firefighting costs are only part of the price tag for a wildfire season.

The other element is wildfire prevention — measures like protecting homes and communities through the Fire Smart Canada program and clearing out potential fuels from B.C.'s wildlands through controlled burns and other measures.

Two independent reviews of the province's wildfire response, written after the destructive 2003 and 2017 seasons, have concluded that much more needs to be done as climate change makes B.C. more vulnerable to fire.

Prevention costs tough to pin down

The provincial government is investing "as much money as it can" into prevention, according to Kelsey Winter, a spokesperson for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

"Prevention is one of the most important things right now during a wildfire season like the one we're having," Winter said.

"There's only a certain amount of things that we can do when it comes to suppression, and a large part of success in the event of a large wildfire is determined on people's prevention activities that they've done on their home itself, their yard, their landscaping."

Parks Canada's Fire Smart Canada aims to remove trees, branches and deadfall surrounding communities. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

But nailing down a firm number for how much the province is spending on prevention is tricky.

According to Winter, it includes the $81 million that's been allocated to the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative since 2004 and another $50 million over three years that's been pledged to the new Community Resiliency Investment Program.

The government has also recently committed $235 million to the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., and a portion of that will go toward measures to reduce wildfire risk, Winter said.

Still, she was unable to give an estimate for how much the province has budgeted for prevention this year.

"I'd say we're on par with last year, if not above," she said.

She was also unable to say whether the province plans to commit more money to prevention in coming years.

With files from CBC's Daybreak North

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Reach me at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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