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UPDATE: Province in discussions with owners of Martin Mars water bomber

UPDATE: In a press conference Monday morning, Min. of Forests Steve Thomson says they’re currently in discussions with the owner of Martin Mars “to see if something can be worked out as needed.” Thomson says knowing the extraordinary wildfire situation that the province is in, they need to look at having all the tools in the toolbox that they need. More to come. 

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The irony – and to some, tragedy – is unmistakable.

As a fire burns in Sproat Lake Provincial Park and threatens cabins, a giant aircraft able to dump 27,000 litres of water in a single run is sitting kilometres away in Port Alberni.

For 53 years the Martin Mars water bombers patrolled B.C.’s skies in the summer, dumping water on wildfires throughout the province when the call came.

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But in 2013, citing increasing maintenance costs and the limited number of lakes where the planes could reload, the province announced it would cease using the two still in operation.

As fires rage across the province, anger over the decision still runs deep in Port Alberni two years later.

“It could have helped this one! It could have helped the one in Port Hardy!” says Kathi Donovan.

READ MORE: Fires raging across B.C. as concern for the summer deepens

She started a petition on change.org to bring back the Martin Mars hours before the Sproat Lake fire started, and it’s already received 11,000 signatures.

“You take the water bomber, you can just scoop down on the lake, dump it all quickly, refuel, and keep going…It’s really sad. Why would you not hire on these beasts that can do the job?”

The province has been steadfast, saying the Martin Mars cannot drop long-term fire retardant, and can only land on 113 bodies of water. They also only used the planes 20 times from 2007 to 2013, approximately 0.5 per cent of the airtanker missions flown during that time.

They’ve also brought up the cost effectiveness of the planes.

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A water bomber fights a fire on the south end of Sproat Lake on July 5, 2015.
A water bomber fights a fire on the south end of Sproat Lake on July 5, 2015. Courtesy Janine Linning

“In 2013, when the Wildfire Management Branch last used the Martin Mars, the season rate was $672,300 with a flying time cost of $4,000 per hour for the first 45 hours and $18,800 per hour for any additional hours. This rate does not include fuel,” they said in a statement last year.

Still, many people are steadfast that they would be effective, with dozens of calls, emails and tweets to Global News this weekend from people wondering why it isn’t being used.

“Even if they did cost more per hour to run, how much more are we losing in timbers, or lives or homes? You take what you got,” says Donovan.

PHOTOS: Fires create haze blanketing B.C. in sea of yellow and orange

Not everyone in Port Alberni is convinced.

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“They’re old airplanes. They’re a constant maintenance. What I wanted to see was for them to go into a museum,” says Barry Simpson.

He flew and maintained the bombers from 1976 to 1996, and knows their symbolic and cultural value.

“They’re big. They’re an unusual airplane. They’re a magnificent thing to see fly, and they’ve been here for a long time,” he says.

But he says the parts for them are rare and costly, and they’re not nimble enough to operate in most fires.

“It wouldn’t do too much good on these fires. It’s too smoky, you wouldn’t be able to get in. Plus, there’s too many of them [in B.C] to get them all with the Mars,” he says.
“With a helicopter you can pick up water in these small lakes near fires…whereas in the Mars we used to load up far away to where the fire is, and then [have a long flight] shooting back down empty.”

Some believe politics was at work when the Martin Mars contract wasn’t renewed. The province now uses Abbotsford-based Conair for water bombing services. One of their executives is Jeff Berry, who headed British Columbia’s Airtanker Program from 1996 to 2013.

But Wayne Coulson, the owner of the Hawaii Mars, has a contract for one his planes to help teach Chinese pilots learn how to fly the same type of planes. He’s in negotiations to move the other one to Florida. And a similar petition effort to bring back the Mars bombers failed last year.

READ MORE: Petition to keep Martin Mars in service to be handed to B.C. premier

It seems unlikely this petition will convince the government either. But that’s not stopping Donovan.

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“This is just wrong, everyone wants them up there,” she says.

“If any more fires start up, we’re already in big trouble.”