Fire fund looking low

Yukon's emergency fund for fighting forest fires is almost dry. Combatting last summer's wildfires sucked more than $7 million from the accumulated contingency fund, leaving just $175,000.

Yukon’s emergency fund for fighting forest fires is almost dry.

Combatting last summer’s wildfires sucked more than $7 million from the accumulated contingency fund, leaving just $175,000.

“Last year it got hit pretty hard,” said Ken Colbert, Yukon’s director of wildland fire management.

Meanwhile, the budget for fighting forest fires has shrunk this year, even though another busy season is forecast.

Predicting the number and magnitude of wildfires is, of course, notoriously difficult. But the fact they’ve allocated less money to fight fires this year is another reason to suspect the territorial government is running low on cash, and that Finance Minister Dennis Fentie’s pledge to post a modest surplus this year may be unrealistic.

This year, fire management is budgeted at $14.17 million, down from $14.8 million last year.

Last year, that $14.8 million wasn’t enough. The government was forced to push the budget to $15.7 million. And that wasn’t enough. So it had to dip into the multimillion-dollar contingency fund, drawing it down to just $175,000, where it sits today.

Spending on Firesmart programs is also down, to $1 million, from $1.5 million. That means fewer projects to get rid of deadwood near dwellings.

But, said Colbert, fewer Firesmart applications have been made this year anyways.

And there was no recruitment camp for forest firefighters held this spring, although Colbert insists this didn’t have to do with budgetary constraints.

Instead, Yukon wildland management partnered with Yukon College to deliver a new course on firefighting through the college’s renewable resources program.

As well, when wildland management advertised for crew members this spring, “we were pleasantly surprised by the number of applications,” said Colbert.

“We made a modest change, but it wasn’t related to budgetary concerns.”

During a good year, the territory may spend $12 million fighting forest fires. During a bad one, such as 2004, costs have soared to $33 million.

Despite the smaller budget and depleted contingency fund, “we don’t expect any changes in how we do business,” said Colbert.

If necessary, he will approach Yukon’s management board for more money mid-season. And, as no government wants to watch the territory burn, such requests are likely to be granted – although this would blow a hole in the surplus.

The contingency fund is topped up during years when there’s money left over from the firefighting budget. That money is then drawn down during bad years.

The fund may only be used to fight fires, said Colbert.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.