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Eby 'profoundly worried' about B.C. fire season as billions prepped for contingencies

B.C. Premier David Eby speaks during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. Eby says he is "profoundly worried" about the potentially "terrible" upcoming wildfire season, a major reason why the province has set aside $10.6 billion in contingency funds over the next three years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

VANCOUVER — Premier David Eby says he is "profoundly worried" about the potentially "terrible" wildfire season in British Columbia, a major reason why the province has set aside $10.6 billion in contingency funds over the next three years.

Eby said Friday that parts of B.C., such as the Peace River, East Kootenay and Upper Fraser regions, remain severely dry, and about 100 wildfires are still burning this winter from last year's record-breaking fire season.

"We're just profoundly worried about the situation we face," he said. 

"We are in the most severe category of drought in many different parts of the province, especially in the northeast. We had a record number of fires burning underneath the snow in the province, about 100 fires in January that we hadn't seen before and we're expecting this to be quite a terrible fire and drought season." 

He said fire and drought are two factors that contribute to the need for the contingency fund for spending uncertainties contained in the provincial budget presented on Thursday. 

Eby said the province is "standing up an army of firefighters" in preparation for this season's wildfires, with about 1,000 people already applying to join the wildfire team this year.

The premier also said the province is leasing aircraft and expanding infrastructure to allow for firefighters to conduct operations such as aerial missions at night, enhancing B.C.'s capacity to fight wildfires around the clock.

"We spent a billion dollars fighting forest fires last fire season and we're expecting this fire season to be even worse, so contingencies enable us to respond to those kinds of emergencies, as well as other issues that may arise during the year," he said. 

He also said the province's agriculture sector has been hit hard by climate change as wild swings in temperatures have killed off farmers' crops. 

"Disasters like that impacting our agriculture sector, floods, forest fires, are examples of these foreseeable but unpredictable costs that can arise during the year, which is what the contingency money is for," he said. 

Leaders in the wine and cherry industries say their vines and trees were severely damaged this winter when a December warm spell was followed by bitter cold. 

Eby spoke about the new budget's impact on businesses with members of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade Friday.

The group had already given the budget a "C" letter-grade due to what it calls "relief for today" and "concern for tomorrow" relating to items such as the deficit growing to $7.9 billion.

Ken Peacock, chief economist of the Business Council of B.C., said the council doesn’t agree with the plan to run large operating deficits when the economy is near full capacity and people are struggling to pay their bills because of inflation. 

The Board of Trade said it welcomes the government's decision to raise the threshold on the Employer Health Tax but it also has concerns about the deficit and debt forecasts.

The budget also includes a commitment to provide one free cycle of invitro fertilization to anyone in B.C. who wants the opportunity to start a family, a plan Kristan Ash of the Midwives Association of B.C. says will mean delivering many wonderful new babies. 

Opposition BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said the government is spending recklessly and the budget's deficit and debt forecasts could trigger a credit rating downgrade.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press

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