Alberta rappel firefighters ‘blindsided’ by program cuts

The Alberta government has announced a decision to end the province’s Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program after decades of service. The helicopter rappel program, known as the RAP program, enables firefighters to rappel from helicopters to fight fires in remote areas that are most easily accessed by air.

Alberta's rappel firefighters believe the RAP program is essential for numerous reasons including scenarios where there is not enough land around a wildfire location to drive to or land at. Alberta Wildfire Photo
Alberta’s rappel firefighters believe the RAP program is essential for numerous reasons including scenarios where there is not enough land around a wildfire location to drive to or land at. Alberta Wildfire Photo
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The government’s decision to end the nearly 63-person program was revealed on Nov. 6 by minister of agriculture and forestry Devin Dreeshen in a statement. Dreeshen said budgetary reasons and the effectiveness of the RAP program were the major factors behind the decision.

“Using lessons learned from previous years, we are modernizing our wildfire response and making changes to align with best practices in other provinces,” said Dreeshen. “Firefighters rappelled into locations in less than two percent of wildfires in Alberta. We are instead prioritizing our Helitack and Firetack crews, which were used far more often.”

He added that “90 percent of wildfire fighting has been provided by private contractors. . . . [And] this practice will continue.”

Nonetheless, Alberta’s rappel firefighters are against the decision to cut the program, which they view as essential for numerous reasons including scenarios where there is not enough land around a wildfire location to drive to or land at.

On Nov. 7, several firefighters from the RAP program attended an Alberta NDP news conference, where they called on the government to reverse its decision to cut the program. Logan Mahoney, a rappel sub leader who has been with the program for six years, said the members of the RAP team were “blindsided” by the decision.

“It’s unclear how a decision like this can be made without any direct representation by anyone from the program,” Mahoney said while speaking at the NDP-led news conference. “Our value goes beyond just rappelling into initial attack fires. We are used on large-scale campaign fires to cut helipads to allow access for all crews to get their boots on the ground.”

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He continued: “Out of all the programs, rappel has the highest retention rate, which provides for more experience on all fires. In many cases, a rappel leader has over 10 years of experience. This experience is risked to be lost by these cuts.”

Lorne Dach, NDP critic for agriculture and forestry, also spoke at the Nov. 7 news conference, and expressed his disappointment with the government’s announcement to end the RAP program. “This cut will put public safety, peoples’ homes, and communities at risk,” he said.

The Alberta government plans to work with the current rappel firefighters to place them on Helitack or unit crews next summer, should they choose to return, minister Dreeshen said.

Alberta’s total wildfire management budget for 2019-20 is $117.6 million, and the contingency fund for emergency response – including wildfires – has been increased to $750 million.

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