Why is Mars bomber idle while fires spread?

With forest fires raging across British Columbia, the snubbing of a local icon has burned deeply into the hearts of many Island residents. Fortunately none of the most serious blazes have threatened Vancouver Island communities, but with most of the province classified at “extreme” risk, forest fires elsewhere have forced evacuation orders of Hudson’s Hope and West Kelowna.

The question that is currently screaming in the Alberni Valley is this: why is the Hawaii Mars water bomber sitting idle on Sproat Lake?

Despite its world-renowned ability to scoop up and drop 27,200 litres of water at time and a 53-year legacy of dousing forest fires across North America, this year the provincial government opted not to renew it’s contract with Coulson Flying Tankers, the Hawaii Mars’ owner. Instead the province went with Abbotsford-based Conair for aerial fire suppression, gaining the services of four smaller turbine-powered aircraft.

Early into the forest fire season, it appears the situation in B.C. will be particularly serious this year. Halfway through July, 624 fires have been documented by the province’s Wildfire Management Branch, encompassing 105,697 hectares. The spread of forest fires this summer has already eclipsed the 2013 total of 18,259 hectares, and appears to be approaching the average burn total of 141,000.

According to Coulson Group of Companies CEO Wayne Coulson, the Mars bomber’s firefighting contract in 2013 amounted to $750,000, yet this year the province decided to go with Conair’s smaller, more modern aircraft for $1.8 million. After the deal was made Steve Thomson, minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource operations cited the bomber’s “operational limitations” with respect to performing multiple drop patterns in B.C.’s mountainous terrain. The decision to go with the Abbotsford company was made while considering the “more cost-effective, efficient options available due to advances in airplane technology,” Thomson said.

Although there are 11 different B.C. air tanker groups contracted by the province this year for forest fires, more support is needed. Instead of looking to the Hawaii Mars’s experience, the province called upon a company from the Yukon to supply two airplanes for fire suppression.

Meanwhile an online petition in support of the water bomber has grown to collect over 17,500 in just a few days, calling on Premier Christy Clark to renew the Mars contract.

A capable firefighting asset sits still on Sproat Lake, sparking many locals to wonder if there is much more than cost effectiveness and efficiency involved in the province’s decisions around controlling forest fires.

Vancouver Island NewsMedia Group