Alberta Firefighters Speak Out
The work of the trained and in many cases highly skilled firefighters fighting to contain the destructive wildfires in Alberta is saving lives and preventing entire communities from being ravaged. Firefighters are speaking out about how the irresponsible acts of the UCP government, which carried out savage cuts to fire prevention and firefighting, has made containing the fires immensely more difficult.
Twenty-six fire towers, more than 20 per cent of fire towers in the province, were closed despite their essential role in early detection, the Rapattack Rappel team was eliminated, aerial patrols were scaled back, and permanent staff laid off. The length of the season was cut, meaning a later start and earlier finish. As a result, firefighters, radio dispatchers, lookout observers, support logistics and others were still in training when the wildfires broke out.  The lack of experienced firefighting crews is compounded by the ravaging of health care and other services by the anti-social offensive, leaving a severe retention problem and reduced numbers of firefighters. The result is a catastrophic situation where there is no one to contain a small fire before it becomes a raging inferno.
One example of the cost for Mother Earth and the people of Alberta of what the UCP and others call "savings" is the dissolution of the Rapattack Rappel team. Former members of Alberta's Rapattack Rappel team, a specialized wildfire-fighting crew, are speaking out and saying that government budget cuts have left the province battling its current blazes short-handed. "We could have been difference-makers," said Jordan Erlandson, a former member of the team.
The Rapattack Rappel team consisted of 63 firefighters stationed around the province, including at Edson, Fox Creek and Lac La Biche, communities which were threatened by what were known as the sleeping giant wildfires. "They told us the program had been eliminated," said former member Adam Clyne, who further stated that the province's excuse for the cuts was the budget. Not only the fire-fighters, but the communities they served spoke out about the elimination of the Rapattack Rappel team. They included the Mayor of Fox Creek, a community which has been evacuated.
The unit was trained to rappel from helicopters and were able to quickly arrive on the scene to extinguish wildfires while they still only covered a few hectares. Rappelling is one of the fastest and safest ways to get into thick bush, muskeg and dense forest. It allows firefighters to get right to work instead of slogging overland with heavy equipment. When one storm sparked several fires, they could extinguish them before they merged. "We would have caught some of them when they were small," said Erlandson.
They also cleared landing spaces for other helicopters to bring in crews and gear. They explained how precious time is lost now that crews have to walk in with heavy equipment because no landing space has been cleared. Clyne explained the importance of the rappel teams because, "That way, we don't have firefighters that are bagged by the time they reach the fire line."
The "savings" were $1.4 million from a total wildfire budget of $117 million in 2019. At the time, Devin Dreeshen, then Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, claimed that the team spent only two per cent of the time rappelling from helicopters, which he stated was based on data from 1,400 fires in Alberta from 2014 to 2018.
However, documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation from internal government communications and supplied to the Canadian Press tell a different story. According to the documents, rappel crews were called out about 100 times annually between 2014 and 2018, and rappelled into a fire on average 23 times a year. "This is an assessment of wildfires that rappel crews were deployed to that there were no other feasible means of getting to," said one email from a government forester.
Erlandson pointed out rappel crews sometimes jump many times into the same fire as part of a large campaign. He estimates teams jumped up to 20 times per fire and probably closer to 100 times on the fire that leveled parts of Fort McMurray in 2016.
Alberta had initially planned to replace the Rapattack crews by dangling firefighters beneath flying helicopters and depositing them at the fire site. Transport Canada blocked that plan, saying it was too dangerous.
"The elimination of the teams also eliminated important tools such as bigger pumps, bigger helicopters, bigger buckets on the helicopter, bigger crews, more hoses, more saws and more experience," said Erlander.
The Rapattackers could have helped, said Ryan Kalmanovitch, a contract firefighter currently battling blazes near Edson. He also said that even on relatively quiet days, Rapattackers could be helping set fire perimeters and dousing hot spots. "They would be able to action those while they're small and that would allow us not to divert resources," he said. "They would absolutely be useful, maybe more so than other crews." Kalmanovitch stated, "They're definitely missed."
The firefighting budget was also cut considerably in 2016, which was explained away by saying that if the monies were needed in the future, emergency funds would be available and short-term contracts would be utilized.
Such vital public services and the workers who provide them are of immense value to our communities, and the specialized firefighters speaking out at this time show this to be the case. The firefighters who are speaking out make clear where decision-making should lie. The firefighters and the communities they serve know what is needed, which is to put the needs of the communities and of the firefighters – who must be provided with the wages and everything they need to do their job and protect their health and safety.
This article was published in
Number 46 - August 23, 2023