Alberta ends program for firefighters rappelling from helicopters

EDMONTON — The Alberta government is ending a program for firefighters who rappel from helicopters to fight forest fires.

Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said Wednesday that crews have been rappelling into locations in less than two per cent of Alberta wildfires, and the government is trying to modernize its wildfire response and align itself with what other provinces are doing.

“We found it’s better to utilize their ground work, and that’s why we’ve made the decision to have them on the ground fighting alongside the hundreds of other wildfire personnel that we have.”

The ministry is saving $23 million going into next year, he added.

Dreeshen said the province will work with the firefighters to place them on other crews next summer if that’s what they want.

The United Conservative government is putting a priority on two other groups of firefighters who are used more often.

Helitack crews land as close as they can to a fire and hike into it, and Firetack crews are made up of contract workers, largely from Indigenous communities.

There were about 65 people in the rappel program, which has been running for nearly four decades. Members are required to weigh no more than 180 pounds and go through rigorous training. When they’re not needed to rappel into a fire zone, they do similar work to a Helitack crew.

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said rappel crews have stopped small fires from growing into ones that are on the same scale as the 2016 blaze in Fort McMurray, Alta., which forced a month-long evacuation of the city and burned thousands of homes.

“They are amongst the most elite of firefighters, the most highly trained and they go in early to places that are otherwise inaccessible and start the fight against the fire early,” she said, noting last year’s fire season was particularly bad.

“To cut a program like this at a time like this is beyond shortsighted. It is going to hurt rural Alberta.”

One firefighter, who does not want to be identified because speaking out might affect his career, said rappel crews can split up to tackle multiple small fires burning at the same time.

The firefighter added that the eight-person crews are also helpful in creating helipads in the brush so that more personnel and equipment can be brought in.

“It’s really hamstringing our ability to get that initial action.”

Another firefighter, who also asked not to be identified, said he wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the tight-knit rappel team choose not to work in Alberta next summer.

“We will be short-handed and it will be translated directly into hiring crews from Montana and Idaho and British Columbia and Australia,” he said.

“With the effects of climate change, we’re seeing additional challenges and it’s just a terrible time to be picking at the organization and dismantling it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2019.

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary, with files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

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