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Alberta New Democrats say they would restore aerial wildfire fighting teams

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes a campaign announcement in Calgary, Thursday, May 4, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh) Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes a campaign announcement in Calgary, Thursday, May 4, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Alberta's New Democrats say they'd bring back a program of elite aerial wildfire fighters cancelled by the United Conservative government.

"Of course, we would restore the Rapattack program," said party leader Rachel Notley at a campaign event.

"Then we would consult with them and others on what needs to be done as our fire hazard in Alberta is clearly growing."

Both the Alberta Party and the Green Party have also committed to restoring the Rapattack program.

Rapattack firefighters were rappelled from helicopters to douse wildfires while they still only covered a few hectares. They can extinguish small fires before they merge and clear landing spaces for other helicopters to bring in crews and gear.

There were once 63 such firefighters stationed around the province before the government cancelled the program in 2019, saving $1.4 million.

The cuts were made despite pleas to keep the program from at least three rural municipalities, one of which has now been evacuated for days in the current record-setting rash of wildfires in Alberta. In letters, mayors described "first-hand" knowledge of how effective the Rapattack program was in getting early responders to blazes.

Former members of the program have described how they could have been "difference-makers" in this season's fires.

One of those former members, Jordan Erlendson, welcomed the New Democrat announcement.

"I think it's a no-brainer for the province," he said. "It's a good long-term investment."

Erlendson said he was pleased three parties were endorsing the program's return.

"I would press the (United Conservatives) to match the other three," Erlendson said. "That would make this non-political -- it should be about wildfire management and the well-being of Albertans."

Notley said her party criticized the Rapattack cuts at the time they were made.

Asked last week about her stance on restoring the program, United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith said she'd think about Alberta's firefighting needs after the election, but has already raised that issue with the civil service.

Smith said Alberta's regular firefighting capacity can't be expected to be able to deal with fires at what she called this spring's "extraordinary" level.

Alberta had 26 out-of-control wildfires as of Monday afternoon and thousands have been forced from their homes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023. Top Stories

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