Nearly a dozen jobs are on the line at The Coulson Group of Companies aviation division after news that the provincial government has cancelled a direct award contract for the Martin Mars waterbomber.
Coulson’s flying tankers unit employs up to 20 people during the height of fire season.
Wayne Coulson bought both Martin Mars waterbombers—the Hawaii Mars and the Philippine Mars—from TimberWest in 2007. He has had a direct award contract since 2007 and has worked on more than 20 fires across B.C. since then.
The Martin Mars has also fought fires in California and Mexico.
Coulson said he will be talking to other clients to see whether there is a need for the waterbomber, but was disappointed that the B.C. government decided to put the contract out to tender.
“We have an obligation to the customer to provide services that create value. If we didn’t believe the Mars was creating that value then we wouldn’t have been working so hard to create an opportunity for it, to have it showcase its capabilities,” he said.
The Wildfire Management Branch is looking for a turbine, multi-aircraft amphibious water-scooping airtanker group for the contract, said Brennan Clarke, public affairs officer with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
“Due to advances in airplane technology there are smaller and more versatile water-scooping aircraft that do not have some of the operational limitations of the Martin Mars,” he stated in an e-mail.
The Wildfire Management Branch contends smaller aircraft perform better in mountainous terrain, smaller drop patterns offer closer support with ground resources and multi-aircraft groups allow continued service on a fire.
The Mars also uses aviation gas, which is becoming difficult to find, Clarke noted.
Coulson said he received approximately $672,000 a year for the contract, which basically paid for winter maintenance on the waterbomber. The new contract, he estimates, will cost about $20,000 per day to operate the aircraft the government has in mind, for a total of $1.8 million.
Alberni-Pacific Rim NDP MLA Scott Fraser said he knocked on a lot of doors lobbying for the Mars to continue fulfilling this firefighting contract, but to no avail.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Fraser said as he watched crews winch the Hawaii Mars out of Sproat Lake and onto land for maintenance, Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s not in the interests of the Alberni Valley and I don’t think it’s in the public’s interest,” Fraser said.
“To hear we’re going to be spending a whole bunch more money to get a whole lot less firefighting capacity...it’s that business management that is bankrupting BC Hydro and bankrupting BC Ferries.
“It’s a betrayal to the people of B.C.”
Fraser said other countries praise the work of the Martin Mars, yet B.C. doesn’t recognize the contribution these aircraft have made to firefighting in its own province.
The new aerial firefighting tender was posted on Aug. 30 and closes Oct. 23. Coulson is welcome to bid on the new contract, Clarke said.
The Coulson Group may still be offered a “call when needed” availability agreement for future years, he added.
Coulson said he’s not sure whether he will do that yet; he is looking at his options, which would include selling the Hawaii Mars if someone made an attractive offer.
“We sent out e-mails on the weekend, to some of the Red Bull folks and Virgin Air folks to see if there’s any interest. We may advertise it for a time to see if we get some interest.
“Whether we operate it for them or look at selling it, or if everything fails it will be time to retire it,” he said.
“The worst thing you can do with an aircraft is let it sit.”