Wildfire Firefighting in British Columbia
Dangerous and Deadly
The 2018 wildfire season is already upon us and I wanted to take the time to speak a little about the business of fighting wildfires.
We always read and hear about the terrible devastation wildfires inflict on our communities. Loss of life always being the ultimate threat. Properties and forests vaporized, livestock, pets and wildlife killed. Wildfires are terrifying, and the results often affect people for the rest of their lives.
I have done businesses with some of the private contractors who provide firefighting personnel and services for wildfire firefighting and flood disasters. I had opportunity to speak with Gary Gray of Grayco Contracting and ask questions about the wildfire firefighting business. I am certainly no an expert about fighting Wildfires, or any type of fire for that matter, but here is what I learned.
These wildfire and flood contractors and their personnel are on call 24 hours a day and need to mobilize at a moments notice. The organization needed is substantial in terms of coordination of the teams, equipment, shelter and sustenance.
The 2018 Firefighting season had about 3800 people fighting fires in British Columbia.
Firefighting teams are comprised of returning veterans, those newly trained, embarking upon a new career and students. Each year a certain number of firefighters, 65-75 percent from the previous season return, however, that leaves 25 percent that need to be recruited. And all wildfire firefighters need to be in top physical condition, must be trained and certified or re-certified to a certain competency and safety level.
Training costs can run to about $500-800 per person. So, if have a total crew of 120 and 25 percent need to be newly trained recruits, there is an approximate cost of $15,000 at the low end, right out of the gate. The there is the added cost of annual re-certification for veteran wildfire firefighters which I believe is about $100 each. Over and above the number of private company firefighters, the Government of BC employs approximately 1000 wildfire firefighters.
The Vancouver Sun reported on December 23, 2017 that wildfires consumed 12,164 square kilometers in British Columbia, the equivalent to more than one third the size of Vancouver Island. This was the worst fire season since 1958 when 8,560 square kilometers were burned.
The estimated cost for the 2017 wildfire season was a whopping $562 million which eclipsed the previous record of $382 million in 2009.
Wildfire firefighting contractors provide and maintain their own equipment. This includes fire retardant garments, trucks, fuel for the trucks, a prescribed minimum number of communication radios for crews plus those mounted in the trucks.
Crews operate in 5, 10, or 20-person crews with 5 being the norm. If there is a crew of 20 or more, then an ambulance must be provided at the site as well.
Then there are the shelter and sustenance costs. These firefighters work 12 hour shifts in treacherous, dangerous conditions. When they come out for rest they are exhausted and need to eat and have a place to sleep.
Often the contractor scrambles to find hotel/motel accommodations and food for their crews. And depending on the location of the fire they are fighting, they may end up sleeping and eating in tents in a field somewhere.
And while the Government reimburses the contractor for his expenses, such as for food, accommodation and fuel costs, the contractor must pay these costs up front. Then, they must submit the expenses to the Government and wait to be paid. This puts extra, undue pressure on the contractor and crews, who needs to focus on fighting the fires. To be fair, I was told that the Provincial Government is looking at a way to solve this problem. The Government needs to have standing offers in place to pay directly for the accommodation, food and fuel.
When all is said and done at the end of the season, it is hoped that there is no loss of human and animal life, minimal property and forest damage and that it was a lot less busy than the previous year.
During the offseason, the contractors gather all equipment such as vehicles and safety equipment – fire-retardant coveralls, radios etc. It all needs to be cleaned up and assessed for usability, repair or replacement. I’m told that radios are the most often lost or damaged item during the season that need to be replaced, repaired or upgraded.
Many contractors are also involved in Silviculture during the rest of the year, cleaning out forest danger areas or vermin infested forest stand and the like.
In the spring the firefighting contractors get their contracts re-upped by the Government. Then the watch is on to gauge what the new fire season may bring. Is the snow-pack higher, normal or lower than normal. Will spring melt come early, will there be a rapid melt causing flood disasters that will need them and their crews. Will an early spring bring lots of vegetation that could fuel the summer wildfires fires? Are there enough veteran wildfire firefighters returning. Do they all have up to date certifications? How many new crew need to be recruited and trained.
Let’s hope the upcoming wildfire season is minimal, but it had already begun at the time of this writing with fires at Lytton, BC.
With an estimated 50% of wildfires being human caused, we all need to take great care and attention not to do things that can cause a wildfire. Things such as not extinguishing cigarettes and campfires completely can cause fires and mass destruction to our people, animals and forests.
My last thoughts:
Wildfire firefighting is hardly glamorous.
It’s a tough life.
The firefighters are tough.
And, we cannot thank them enough for their service.
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I provide alternative business finance for small and medium size business in Canada.
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