Yukon Government Promises To Protect Firefighting Money

WHITEHORSE (CP) -- The Yukon government will spend whatever is necessary to maintain public safety and protect property in the face of wildfires that have laid ``siege'' to the territory, says the minister responsible for fire management.

``We are under siege throughout the Yukon,'' said Glenn Hart, who told reporters this week he will bring forward legislation to make sure any surplus in the annual $6.5-million fire suppression budget is banked to fight fires and not put into general revenue.

His comments came as Yukon fire officials were warning people about the volatile fire situation in a placer mining gold field south of Dawson.

``We want them to know we can't guarantee we are going to have access to those people if these conditions worsen over the next couple of days,'' said fire official Paula Webber.

She said three miners working away from their main camp had their access out of the area blocked when a fire crossed the road.

They had to be ferried by helicopter back to their main camp.

Some miners have also decided to set up their sprinkler systems to defend their structures should fire threaten, she said.

There are currently 123 active fires across the territory and conditions are described as extreme.

Satellite images show that smoke from fires in Alaska, Yukon and B.C. stretches from the Bering Strait southeast as far as New York City.

There was some good news Wednesday on the B.C. wildfire front, as residents of a tiny town near Quesnel were expected to be allowed to return home.

The tiny Cariboo village of Kluskus, about 140 kilometres west of Quesnel, had remained empty since its 14 residents voluntarily left their homes on Friday. Despite 12,000 lightning strikes overnight in the province, only 16 new fires were started, and the total number of fires in the province were 422, down from 448 last week.

The B.C. forest minister said Wednesday the province is spending more than $3 million a day to fight the fires and is well on its way to exceeding its firefighting budget for the second year in a row.

The province has already spent $35 million _ 70 per cent of its firefighting budget for the year _ on efforts to extinguish and control the 995 fires started this fire season.

Forests Minister Mike de Jong said it's unlikely the province will be able to stay within its $50-million firefighting budget, but there are contingency plans in place.

``The fact of the matter is, you spend what you have to spend, just as we did last year,'' de Jong said.

The province spent $376 million last summer to fight fires that ravaged the Okanagan and destroyed more than 300 homes and businesses.

But this year's numbers show the 2004 fire season could be worse.

Even if this year's firefighting budget exceeds last year's, de Jong is confident it won't be enough to throw the provincial government into deficit.

The biggest fires remained on the B.C.-Yukon border, with the Coal River blaze covering 175 square kilometres and the Swan Lake blaze burning over 340 square kilometres.

Webber said B.C. fire crews were planning a burnout on the Coal River fire which is causing the problem, in an attempt to reduce fuel for the fire and keep it away from the Alaska Highway.

Crews working the Swan Lake fire on the B.C. side of the border conducted a successful burnout around one of two microwave towers essential for communication for the Yukon, she said.

There was some relief expected Monday, with cooler temperatures and some wet lightning, though long-range forecasts can change, she said.

The Yukon has not seen such explosive fire conditions since 1969, the year the Faro town site was burned to the ground shortly after it was built as a mining community, Hart said.