Manitoba signs deal for fire suppression service with private firm

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has signed a deal with a private firm to take over operation of the province's fleet of water bombers and other wildfire fighting services.

Babcock Canada and Air Spray will run and house the water bombers, while the provincial government will continue to own the aircraft, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said Thursday.

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The aircraft will only be deployed outside the province when they are not needed locally, Schuler said.

He said the deal will save the province money because Babcock will provide some additional aircraft — so-called "bird dogs" that lead water bombers to the scene — as well as new hangar space that the province would otherwise have to fund.

"We view this as a minimum of $1 million a year savings," Schuler said.

The Progressive Conservative government did not release the contract with the private firms, citing an ongoing search for private operators for other aircraft services including the province's air-ambulance planes.

The Opposition New Democrats said the privatization could put people at risk. Private firms will take profits from the funding, leaving less for front-line work, they said.

The NDP also said it's unfair that workers on the government fleet will now have to reapply for their jobs.

"There's no guarantee that some, any or all will actually get those jobs," New Democrat legislature member Tom Lindsey said.

Schuler said some other Canadian provinces, such as British Columbia, already use private firms to fight wildfires.

The move is part of the Tory government's ongoing efforts to cut the deficit and balance the budget by 2024 while also fulfilling a commitment to cut the provincial sales tax by one percentage point.

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