The Saskatchewan government’s decision to replace forest fire tower employees with automated cameras continues to generate controversy with the workers’ union.

Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union President Bob Bymoen says with the elimination of the fire tower employees, the province has had to step up helicopter patrols to spot wildfires and this is costing a lot more money.

“It’s over $2,000 an hour for a helicopter patrol and it’s like maybe $20 an hour for a tower observer,” he says. “So, easily within a few days of a helicopter patrol, you could’ve paid a tower observer for the full year.”

Nevertheless, executive director of wildfire management Steve Roberts says the helicopter patrols are operating under an existing contract, so the province isn’t necessarily spending more money on them.

“We are actually using existing protection aircraft that are already on contract with the government to do this,” he says. “We have moved them down into areas where there is higher hazard and because we’re doing some automation, we don’t have a man tower in place yet, but it is part of the system that’s in this year’s annual budget.”

Roberts adds most automated cameras have been installed in fire towers and should be fully operational next fire season.