An estimated $4-million wildfire training centre is slated to open on over 2.1 hectares just south of the Merritt Airport runway this spring, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations announced last Friday.

City of Merritt Mayor Susan Roline said the facility will bring nearly $48,000 per year in revenue, which is money that will take away from the taxpayer burden.

“This revenue is new to the city,” she said. “That was one of our goals, to bring in other sources of revenue to the City and not always having to raise taxes for things we need.”

City council decided last year to complete a subdivision, which included installing water and sewer, as well as finishing an access road that extends around the airport.

Eleven lots were created by subdividing the land, five of which are being rented for the training facility. Another lot is occupied by the Merritt Flying Club.

Money was borrowed to complete the project, a debt that will be serviced through the rent, Roline said.

The City’s Economic Development Manager, James Umpherson, said the first occupiers will likely attract more organizations.

“I think the development of the airport facility, particularly having an anchor tenant like [the Wildfire Management Branch], is significant in that it is going to show some direct and some indirect economic spinoffs,” he said. “The direct benefits are that we now have a $4-million facility that they’re building and 57 employees coming to the City of Merritt and will be living in and buying homes in the community.”

The facility will bring an estimated five full-time staff, 57 seasonal staff, four three-person initial attack crews and two 20-person sustained action unit crews.

The facility will provide classroom instruction and training that will simulate real-life conditions.

An annual “boot camp,” which was formerly at the Nicola Base, will be held at the new location.

The training facility will replace the Nicola Base and is an important move for the Merritt Fire Zone, Kamloops Fire Centre Manager Steve Schell said.

“When you’re working with aircraft, it’s nice to be right beside an airport because you can expand operations if you had to,” he said.

“There is room for bringing in more aircraft and parking aircraft closer to the airport and it’s just more accessible to our staff when they are responding to fires.”

Two helipads were situated at the Nicola Base, but the location couldn’t accommodate expansion.

“It only makes sense that if we can locate offices closer to airports, it is a wise thing to consider,” Schell said.

“This was one of the locations we looked at, and it just happened that the City of Merritt was able to work closely with us to explore the options and the size of the lot that we needed.”

The Ministry signed a 25-year lease with the City, with the option to extend that period for another 25 years.

The facility will amalgamate two functions into one building, which are the wildfire response and the training centre.

Schell noted that two groups of 75 students will train there, annually. Each session lasts for about six to seven weeks.

Wildfire Management Branch emergency response staff will also train at the facility.

The dry weather in Merritt makes it an ideal training area for providing field exercises, he added.

The Ministry said in a release that the facility will improve fire response capabilities in the Merritt area.

Merritt has one of the largest fire suppression zones in the province.

The Wildfire Management Branch responded to 107 fires in the 653 hectares so far this year.

The new building will be at 4476 Airport Road, which is just south of the Merritt Airport runway.

Wildfire crews are sent to over 2,000 wildfires in B.C. each year.

Around 92 per cent of the wildfires in the province are contained to fewer than four hectares.

The fire crews help with fuel management activities when they aren’t fighting fires.

The Merritt Fire Zone is one of seven areas in the Kamloops Fire Centre.