Wildfire battles to cost the province an additional $273 million

Premier Jason Kenney, left, and Finance Minister Travis Toews speak about the government’s finances on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Edmonton . Greg Southam / Postmedia, file

The wildfires that forced more than 10,000 Albertans from their northern homes this spring will cost the province an extra $273 million this year, according to new funding estimates tabled in the legislature Wednesday.

Supplementary and interim supply bills for 2019-20, the province’s first formal book-keeping exercise under the UCP, outlined how the government will bridge a funding gap until a fall budget is tabled.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs requested $80 million for disaster recovery and municipal wildfire assistance programs, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry asked for $193 million for wildfire management.

Extremely dry conditions contributed to a combination of forest fires that started plaguing northern communities in May. The biggest, known as the Chuckegg Creek fire, forced the evacuation of High Level and surrounding communities, destroying some homes in the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement. There are 716 firefighters and personnel currently assigned to tackle the massive blaze, which covered nearly 270,000 hectares as of Wednesday.

Evacuees from the McMillan wildfire complex, southwest of the Bigstone Cree Nation, including the hamlets of Wabasca-Desmarais, Sandy Lake and Chipewyan Lake, were allowed to return home this week. Those fires northeast of Lesser Slave Lake span more than 263,000 hectares.

Province-wide, there are still more than 2,000 firefighters, 159 helicopters, 22 air tankers and more than 200 pieces of heavy equipment working to control the fires. And it all comes with a a cost.

“There’s a base set funding amount,” said Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, adding that more funding is determined on a case-by-case basis.

The base funding in 2018-19 for example was $99 million, but total costs can range by hundreds of millions every year.

In 2015-16, wildfire expenditures were higher than ever, totalling approximately $514 million, said the province.

‘We still don’t have any clarity’

Wildfire funding is one of the financial pieces falling into place through the interim supply bill required to keep government operations funded.

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said the supplementary and interim supply bills raise difficult questions.

“(We) see a number of questions that leave a great deal of uncertainty and a great deal of insecurity in particular for young families and for children,” she told reporters Wednesday.

She referenced the per-student funding formula under the NDP.

Earlier this week, Finance Minister Travis Toews confirmed his government would fully fund enrolment growth expected to bring 15,000 new students to Alberta schools in September. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange estimated that would cost about $150 million.

But the province hasn’t confirmed per-student funding numbers.

“(And) we still don’t have any clarity from them on the future of the school nutrition program … it feeds 33,000 students every day,” Phillips said, referencing the $15.5-million program introduced under the NDP.

Toews said the legislature has an obligation to pass spending committed to by the previous government.

“We commit to ensure there’s enough funding that high-quality services can be delivered to Albertans until such a time that we pass a budget, which will be this fall,” he said Wednesday.

“We recognize that some of that spending was warranted, it was for emergency response to fires and other events.”

In May, Premier Jason Kenney announced a blue-ribbon panel to examine Alberta’s finances.

A group of experts — including chairwoman Janice MacKinnon, a former Saskatchewan finance minister, and vice-chairman Mike Percy, a former Alberta Liberal MLA and University of Alberta professor emeritus — aimed to provide advice on how to get the province out of a “debt hole,” said Kenney at the time.

In its 2018 budget, the then-NDP government estimated debt would reach $96 billion by 2023. The last provincial budget was tabled on March 22, 2018.