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BC burns through its forest firefighting budget as wildfires rage

As British Columbia continues to be plagued by hot, dry conditions that have fuelled more than 400 wildfires, the province has already burned through its forest firefighting budget. B.C.'s Liberal government allocated $52 million to fight wildfires in the fiscal year 2010-2011.

Gwen Eamer, an information officer at the province's wildfire management branch, said Tuesday that $52.8 million has already been spent fighting fires since the beginning of April.

With August just underway and steady rain nowhere in sight for much of the province, Eamer said that figure is certainly expected to rise.

"We spent about $6 million (Tuesday)," she said in an interview, adding "we can anticipate continued expenditures."

Last year, the province set aside $62 million in its budget to fight forest fires but spent about $400 million.

Nonetheless, it slashed its budget estimate for 2010-2011 by $10 million.

Robert Pauliszyn, a spokesman for B.C.'s Ministry of Forests and Range, said it's extremely difficult to predict forest firefighting expenditures from year to year. As a result, he said, the province aims for a "reasonable" estimate of around $50 or $60 million.

When asked if the estimate for 2010-2011 was reasonable following such a violent fire season the year before, Pauliszyn said the figure really doesn't matter from an operational perspective.

"We have statutory authority to spend what we need to put out the fire," he said in an interview. "From a response perspective, it's immaterial to what number is set aside for budget management purposes."

He said it will once again be up to the finance minister to decide on an estimate for 2011-2012. It's currently set for a repeat of $52 million.

Pauliszyn insisted there's no harm in going over the budget.

"The minister of finance sets aside resources through the contingency vote and also through the forecast allowance specifically to deal with unforeseen circumstances, such as higher than anticipated direct fire costs," he said.

Tuesday was another busy day for fire crews.

Eamer said officials expect to see about 50 new fires every day unless conditions suddenly change.

More than 180 new wildfires were reported during the B.C. Day long weekend. Since the beginning of the year, more than 760 square kilometres of land has been scorched.

B.C.'s Cariboo region in the centre of the province was hit especially hard Tuesday, as lightning sparked a rash of new fires and helped the spread of others.

The largest wildfire in that region was near Meldum Creek, 15 kilometres west of Williams Lake. The fire was estimated at 150 square kilometres and sparked an evacuation order.

The blaze was first discovered July 28 but the lightning-caused fire doubled in size Tuesday. About 200 firefighters armed with 25 pieces of heavy equipment attacked the flames, as did 10 helicopters.

Smoke from the fire could be seen in nearby communities.

Another fire near Pelican Lake, southwest of Prince George, also kept residents out of their homes. The 75 square kilometre blaze was fought by 22 firefighters and seven helicopters.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for two other fires in the Cariboo region: one near Alexis Creek, the other at Dog Creek.

Eamer said fire officials expected to receive some help from the weather soon, but it won't be much.

"There's the potential for scattered showers in the forecast across the Cariboo, but what we really need is a sustained heavy rain and we're not seeing that," she said.

Ground crews were forced off one of B.C.'s single biggest fires for safety reasons Tuesday after the blaze grew to 110-square kilometres just south of the Yukon border along Highway 37.

The fire forced the closure of the road linking the province and the territory.

Two pilots were killed in B.C. on Saturday when their air tanker crashed while fighting a blaze south of Lytton.

The Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it appears the pilot of the aircraft lost control and went into the ground nose first.

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