With at least 122 wildfires now raging across B.C., the province’s annual wildfire fighting budget has already gone up in smoke.
More than $89 million has been spent so far, $25 million more than the $64 million allocated for wildfire suppression in the 2018 budget.
Those numbers are still well behind last year’s devastating wildfire season. By this point last summer, about $112 million had already been spent fighting fires.
B.C.’s wildfire fighting budget is based on a 10-year rolling average of costs. The province doesn’t allocate more upfront so as not to tie up money that could be spent elsewhere, should the fire season not require it.
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But as a line-item in the B.C. budget, wildfires differ from other expenditures. Under the Emergency Program Act, the BC Wildfire Service is empowered to spend what it needs in order to address the crisis, with the extra funding to be paid out without a special appropriation.
Budget 2018 set out an extra $350 million in a forecast allowance with an eye to wildfires, along with an additional $550-million contingency fund.
For context, last year’s record-setting season ended up costing the province more than $564 million in wildfire response, and an additional $73 million to deal with floods.
Burning through the annual wildfire budget is nothing new for B.C.
Between 2004 and 2017, B.C. came in under budget only twice, the 2005-06 season ($47 million spent vs. $55 million budgeted) and the 2011-12 season ($53 million spent vs. $63 million budgeted).
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Crews spent more than $109 million in 2016-17, and more than $380 million in 2015-16.
Other expensive years included 2009-10, when firefighting cost $382 million, and 2003-04 when the cost was $371 million.
The province changed the way it allocated its budget for the Wildfire Management Branch in 2011-12, however, which the wildfire service said can make it difficult to compare previous years with current expenditures.