From Catherine Ford a prominent Canadian opinion-shaper : crosbyk@TheHerald.Southam.CA
All last summer, while one of the world's best fire killers sat on a runway in Moscow, more than seven million hectares of Canada burned to ashes. John Anderson believes his company could have reduced that loss and saved Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars. But provincial bureaucracy and protectionism toward the Canadian wilderness firefighting service prevented him from proving it. He hopes last year taught bureaucrats a lesson. It was a hellish summer. Professional firefighters and volunteers armed with axes and shovels, earth movers and bulldozers, all backed by helicopters and Canada' s fleet of aging water bombers, battled the relentless onslaught of northern fires. By July, 13 of 61 Saskatchewan fires were out of control and of 88 in Manitoba. In the N.W.T., 37 fires were burning. Nearly all were out of control. Flames destroyed two-thirds of the harvestable timber in Ontario and Quebec. The cost of fighting last summer's forest fires was $500 million. Experts don't see last year's record-breaking summer as an anomaly. They see the increase in forest fires twofold in the past 15 years and the resulting loss of timber and environmental imbalance as a pattern. For Anderson and his Calgary-based Total Corporate Aviation Services, the frustration was unbearable. TCA's Canadian-Russian joint venture vainly proposed the use of a huge Ilyushin-76 water tanker to battle the increasingly ferocious fires. TCA approached the western provinces for a contract, but was turned down on the basis the cost would not be justified the number of fires. The Russian tanker doesn't come cheap, although in hindsight, it would seem a bargain: $10,000 US per hour for a minimum of 90 hours, plus fuel. Anderson estimates the minimum cost at $2 million Cdn. The savings are in the capacity of the Russian tanker and thus its ability to put a fire out faster and control the spread. Anderson suggested a test of the Il-76, whose specs include a 43,000-litre capacity, a speed of 800 kilometres per hour and a range of 2,400 nautical miles. There was always, he says, some excuse that it couldn't happen, even though it looked as if the efficiency of the Russian plane, based on its capacity and range, was indisputable. There was always some reason no government could use it. Anderson met bureaucracy with bombast, although he says that his contact with various governments deteriorated into sarcasm and rudeness only when he understood he was facing intransigence and what he refers to as the bureaucratic penchant for being "economical with the truth." On the line, the forest fires strained the resources of provinces from one end of the country to the other. Newfoundland overspent its firefighting budget by more than $7 million; Alberta spent $55 million battling fires in the north. Only B.C. escaped the summer of Mother Nature's bad mood. The East sweltered; the West shivered and weather forecasters talked about global warming. Now the cycle begins again: A long, cold and icy winter melts into spring flooding. Some forecasters have predicted another hot, dry summer. Anderson still believes he can sell the services of the Russian tanker on the basis of efficiency and reduced costs. He enthuses about the possibility of co-operation among the provinces, given the Il-76's ability to cover the nation, to bomb fires from Prince George to Come-By Chance. He even talks about the global aspects of such a project and the political good will arising from such Canada-Russia ventures. Anderson has the enthusiasm of the committed. For him, using the Il-76 to fight the kind of forest fires Canada faced last summer is on a par with bringing in Red Adair to douse an oil blaze - just the very best in the world. Anderson and TCA may get some help from an unusual source the Ontario public service union strike. Spring is the time when Canada's fleet of water bombers are serviced to be prepared for the summer fire season.Rumor has it that the planes aren't being readied for work. Anderson knows the Ilyushin is ready to go; right now.