NDP sounds wildfire alarm

Cuts to forest fire fighting programs could endanger the public, warns the NDP's Steve Cardiff. Not so, insists Ken Colbert, director of Wildland Fire Management.

Cuts to forest fire fighting programs could endanger the public, warns the NDP’s Steve Cardiff.

Not so, insists Ken Colbert, director of Wildland Fire Management.

Fire management’s budget saw a modest increase this year, from $14.485 million, up from $14.309 million.

“For us this season, it’s business as usual,” said Colbert.

And, if wildfires outstripped the budget, Colbert is confident the government would authorize more money.

“In situations where our communities are threatened, we’ve always been supported to exceed our budget, provided we do it in a wise and safe manner.”

“Significant budget cuts” would hamstring the efforts of firefighters this summer, warned Cardiff in a recent letter. According to him, the entire Ross River fire crew has been told to stand down; no helicopter has been contracted to be on standby; fire observation towers will have far fewer staff and the Dawson City air tanker base is closing.

Much of this criticism is misleading, said Colbert.

Ross River had two fire crews: one staffed by the Yukon government, the other by the local First Nation. The territory “had some challenges” hiring the territorial crew this year. But, in “many communities” it’s common to just have a First Nation fire crew, said Colbert.

“We feel there’s adequate coverage there.”

Last year, the territory struck a long-term contract to hire a firefighting helicopter.

“We found it wasn’t fiscally efficient,” said Colbert.

Previously, the territory had hired helicopters as needed. It plans to do so again this summer.

Cardiff worries this won’t be easy, with the Yukon in the midst of a massive mineral exploration rush. Colbert isn’t concerned.

“Our experience is we can acquire helicopters when we need them, even during bad years.”

All of Yukon’s 11 fire towers will continue to be manned this summer. There’s a review underway of fire tower staffing, “but there’s no decision to shut down a tower at this present time,” said Colbert.

He also disputed the closure of the Dawson City tanker base.

“That’s one that really annoys me, because it certainly leaves the wrong impression with the public.”

The tanker contract expires next year.

But “it certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be going out and re-tender,” said Colbert. “We’re actually looking forward to better aircraft, and we’ll be in much better shape.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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