Blowing Budgets

Note: updated as of November 2015.

Back in June the Province had highlighted that the Ministry’s fire fighting budget managed to be almost entirely consumed before the beginning of summer. Good for them, except they provided no context for their readers.

The media failed to point out how the entire budget could be used up when the total area burned and the number fires were only at 25% and 50%  of a normal fire season.

How could this be?

I will tell you how. By producing a ridiculously low budget, that’s how. You would think that the wildfire budget could at least be grounded in some sort of reality – say, like the 10 year average. But look at the data, folks. The average fire fighting expenditure is $145.5 million per year, which is 2.3 times the 2015 budget.

wildfirebudget

Figure 1: BC Wildfire Costs Vs. Budget

We all know that no government anywhere in the history of the world has ever low-balled a budget to “balance the books,” so there has to be another reason. Normally we could turn to the media for answers, but they are unfortunately too busy hyperventilating over the next potential natural disaster to even ponder this question. That leaves Your Truly no choice but to answer the call.

The truth is less sinister than the government low balling the budget to balance the books. In reality, they merely set the budget based upon the best case scenario — done to prevent Forestry from wasting large sums of money at the end of the year in the event of a low fire season. Otherwise, it becomes  tempting for forestry to shovel out money as fast as they can in late summer. That’s what used to happen when I was forest fire fighter in the late 1990s. They gave us extra work at tax payer’s expense when it became clear that money would be left over.

It seems like neither media nor the government know this, or at least they knew at one time, but have long since forgotten. Sure, 2015 was a highly active fire season, but the recent articles out there all fail to provide any sort of reference point around the 63 million dollar budget. Try as I might, I failed find a single article from 2015 that mentions how budgets are set.

Even the Premier doesn’t have a clue as was evident in September when she issued the following statement:

“What we do with the budget is look at, I think, a rolling five or six-year average. We take that average and we plug it into the budget. But we always know if it goes over the set budget amount, we spend what we need to.”

Her statement was simply not true as the graph above demonstrates: five and six year averages are in excess of $163 million.

I had to go back five years to find a government spokesperson who actually knew where the budget number came from. Former Finance Minister, Colin Hansen, explained in 2010 that the budget amount is set as if no fires happen. If fires do happen, the budget is blown (obviously from Figure 1 the budget is set a little higher than that, but he was at least in the right ball park):

Citing the unpredictability of forest-fire seasons, Hansen said the province budgets only for the minimum cost of getting firefighting resources in place and then pours as much money into firefighting as the season requires.

“We have the authority to spend as much as necessary without a vote of the legislature,” Hansen said. “The base costs that we have are for things like the contracts we put in place to have forest firefighters and equipment on standby even if there wasn’t a single fire to break out.”

So there you have it in a nutshell. Neither the clueless media nor the hapless government know how the wildfire budget comes about. All they do know is that “HELP, THIS FIRE SEASON IS GOING TO BE THE WORST EVER!” (1958 and 1961 still rank as the worst seasons ever, but you wouldn’t know that from the latest headlines.)

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