Budget cuts claim Alberta's elite wildfire fighting unit
CALGARY – After learning the UCP government would be dismantling a unit of firefighters specially trained to fight wildfires, the NDP opposition says the loss is a "shameful cut."
The Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program, also known as the Helitack-Rappel or RAP program, was established 36 years ago and employs 65 personnel.
Those firefighters are equipped to jump directly into remote areas of the province to fight fires.
Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta's Official Opposition, says those firefighters are deployed in problem areas, sometimes even right on top of fires that cannot be reached by ground personnel.
"Today we learned that these brave RAP teams have been sacrificed to pay for this premier's $4.7-billion-dollar corporate handout. This is a shameful cut that will put public safety and people's homes at risk," she said in a release.
Alberta has about 1,000 wildfires a year, with more than 880,000 hectares burning in 2019.
Past and present members of the RAP team say they are an essential resource for fighting wildfires in Alberta.
"Forest fires do not get stopped from the air, as much as Hollywood might have you believe," said Tom Weston, who worked with the program between 1998 and 2009. "They are stopped by boots on the ground spraying water, dirt, directing air tankers and buckets of water to the places where they will be the most effective."
Former rappel wildland firefighter Jamie Parker was more direct. "Taking a complete arm or a leg from the firefighting spectrum is just asinine to me, I just don't understand," he said, adding that the cuts came as a complete shock.
"(I thought) is this a joke? Number one," Parker said, "and then secondly, I think it was just (a feeling of) complete devastation."
The UCP government has defended its decision to cut the program's funding by saying they are "modernizing our wildfire response and making changes" to reflect what is being done in other provinces.
"We are instead prioritizing our Helitack and Firetack crews, which were used far more often," said Devin Dreeshen, Alberta's minister of agriculture and forestry. "We will work with firefighters to ensure that those wanting to work for us again next summer are placed on Helitack or Unit crews."
Senior Helitack firefighter Kyler Mitchell said, "I live with these men and women. Some of them are my really close friends and it just sucks to hear that they are going to be cut."
The government added that 90 per cent of the wildfire fighting conducted in the province was staffed by private contractors, not Government of Alberta employees.
Premier Jason Kenney and Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley traded barbs in the Alberta Legislature Wednesday over the issue during question period.
"The Official Opposition leader is talking about a program that was used in less than two per cent of instances," Kenney said.
"I'm sure that RAP team would be happy to hear that their premier thinks they only work two per cent of the day," Notley replied.
The budget also increased Alberta's contingency fund for emergency response to $750 million.
"The protection of lives and communities will always be our top priority when responding to wildfires," Dreeshen said.
Dreeshen's office said the province will be conducting an independent review of the 2019 spring wildfire activity and conditions, the department's preparedness and response to those wildfires and the department's wildfire management program.
A report will be published and released sometime next year.