Fire season shaping up as one of the worst

Cost on pace with firestorm 2003, where Barriere, Okanagan Park fires burned homes, businesses rail trestles

VICTORIA – The B.C. government has spent more than $80 million so far this year battling forest fires, on a pace for one of the worst fire seasons on record.

There were 27 new fire starts reported in B.C. on Sunday alone, with 184 active fires being fought across the province and nine evacuation alerts and orders in effect as of Monday affecting 800 homes.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the unusual early dry spell has provincial costs running ahead of 2003, where devastating fires at Barriere near Kamloops and in the Okanagan destroyed or damaged 238 homes and burned 12 wooden trestles in the Myra Canyon stretch of the historic Kettle Valley Railway.

The 2009 fire season is the most expensive on record, with $382 million spent, compared to $375 million in 2003. Those years also saw prolonged drought, but it set in later in the summer.

A tree-faller was killed Sunday while working on a fire on the Sunshine Coast, the latest reminder of the danger of firefighting. In 2010, two air tanker pilots were killed, and a helicopter pilot died fighting a fire in 2009.

Smoke is noticeable in the air in Metro Vancouver and on Vancouver Island.

There is no budget limit for forest fire expenditures. While the costs have to be accounted for after the season, de Jong said he is more concerned with the continued carelessness of people despite the financial and human costs.

“I was driving down the highway yesterday and I saw someone throw a cigarette out of their car,” de Jong said. “Give your head a shake. I don’t know what is wrong with people who wantonly put other people’s lives and property at risk.”

B.C. has often lent its experienced fire crews to other jurisdictions, but in 2009 more than 1,800 people were brought in from most other provinces, the U.S. and even Australia and New Zealand.

That may be more difficult this season, with severe conditions across Western Canada. In Saskatchewan, where 12,000 people have fled their homes, Premier Brad Wall announced Monday that up to 1,000 Canadian Forces troops may be called in to help.