Mark Rendell

Assembly Briefs: Oct. 28 – Final tally for forest fires? $60 million

Defeated: motions to support construction of seniors home in Yellowknife, keep old water bombers

The total cost of fighting forest fires this past summer came in at a whopping $60 million, according to Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger.

That’s $5 million more than the $55-million price tag previously reported and nearly nine times the $7 million budgeted at the beginning of the season.

Miltenberger gave a detailed account of fire-fighting expenditures in the legislative assembly on Tuesday. It took more than a thousand people, including 468 firefighters brought in from across the country, to battle fires raging across 3.4 million hectares of land. Fire crews tackled 126 distinct fires, including eight that threatened communities and major infrastructure.

Nearly half the $60 million was spent on materials, supplies and equipment – coming in at just under $26 million. After that, the biggest slice went to running the territory’s six helicopters and four air tanker groups, as well as a number of other aircraft brought in.

“Given the extreme conditions, limited resources and large complex fires … I would consider this a successful fire season in that there was no loss of life, no significant injuries, and no significant damage done to any community,” said Miltenberger.

There were, however, a number of buildings destroyed by the fires. In July a home on the Hoarfrost River burnt down.

“High winds and extreme fire conditions caused the fire to switch directions and destroy a home and some outbuildings,” said Miltenberger, adding Moraine Point Lodge on the west side of Great Slave Lake was lost later on.

He also noted the destruction of approximately 15 cabins and significant loss of land used by traditional harvesters. The cabins will cost around $500,000 to replace.

There are some small benefits expected as a result of the fire season, said Miltenberger. For one, a huge morel mushroom crop is anticipated next summer.  There’s also more firewood to be harvested near Yellowknife.

“You have all the wood that burnt just outside of town, so you have all these standing dead trees, already burnt, nice and dry. Instead of driving 100-plus kilometres down the road for a load of wood you can drive 10 kilometres,” said Miltenberger.

Motion to support construction of seniors facility rejected

A motion to get government support to start construction on a new 60-bed facility at Avens this spring was defeated on Monday.

Bromley proposed the motion, which also called for the GNWT to adopt a long-term action plan to provide long-term beds for seniors.

“There is a projected shortfall in the NWT of 200 long-term care beds and 60 dementia beds by 2031,” Bromley noted in the motion.

“With the two facilities that are being built in Norman Wells and Behchoko, it’s going to take a bit of the pressure off,” said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro. “But those two facilities are going to be full pretty much when they’re finished, and it’s not going to make a big dent in the 200 beds.”

All Yellowknife MLAs not in cabinet voted for the motion, which was defeated 10 votes to seven.

Health Minister Glen Abernethy, who opposed the motion, said his department was working with Avens, but the care home needs to come up with a solid plan before getting government approval.

And “rather than developing one single action plan to address all the elements of this strategic framework, we will focus on the different priority areas, the different pillars for aging in place and long-term care,” he said.

Miltenberger was more blunt in his opposition. “I would suggest that we are looking at well over $50 million, a motion that is put on our table as we are probably two-thirds of the way through our capital planning process for this year, to start this spring, six months hence,” he said.

“It’s not a realistic motion. It does pose a big problem of queue jumping and they need to do more thorough planning.”

MLAs outside Yellowknife worried that with projects like the Stanton hospital renovation already in the works, Yellowknife was already getting a disproportionate amount of health infrastructure.

“Not everyone in the communities wants to move to Yellowknife,” added Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli. “They have very specific needs, especially First Nation elders that have a cultural tie to the community, extended families, there is also just the comfort of ensuring that their independence, living in their home, being close to their grandchildren.”

GNWT to sell old water bombers

Despite opposition from several MLAs, the government is proceeding with a plan to sell its Canadair CL-215 water bombers when a new fleet of planes arrives in 2017.

No one opposed the $27 million dollar purchase of eight Air Tractor AT-802 planes – a smaller, more maneuverable water bomber. But Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen tabled a motion to keep the old planes as “insurance if we end up having other serious fire seasons here in the Northwest Territories.”

It costs about $4 million a year in insurance, upkeep and parts just to keep the old 215s grounded; the planes themselves are only worth around $5 million. Nonetheless Groenewegen and several other MLAs suggested the 215’s proven effectiveness and large payloads, roughly twice the size of the 802s, makes their maintenance a worthwhile investment.

Besides, said Groenewegen, “there may be future use for the 215s in the area of pollution and containment and abatement.”

Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley, who opposed keeping the planes, admitted the 215s larger payload load was attractive. But “they’re not able to get into small water bodies so they have to go quite a ways,” he said, and “they’re not as precise in delivering the load exactly where it’s needed.”

Avgas, the fuel used by the 215s, is also becoming scarce and expensive, said Bromley.

“That means they can’t be stationed where they need to be without a huge investment to transport fuel rather than relying on commercial supplies that have larger volumes and lower costs.”

As Groenewegen’s motion was defeated, the GNWT will continue searching for potential buyers for the 215s. Buffalo airways expressed interest last year in buying the planes for a pollution-fighting fleet to respond to oil spills.

“In fact, there were discussions with ENR at one point, but there never was a formal proposal put forward,” said Miltenberger.