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Politics

Alberta Wildfire cuts rappel crews, detection tower staffing and air unit following provincial budget

A program with more than 60 firefighters trained to rappel into wildfires has been scrapped following the provincial budget, which has raised concerns as officials look forward to next year's wildfire season. Adam MacVicar reports.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story said Alberta Wildfire was eliminating 30 detection towers following the provincial budget. It has since been updated to clarify it is eliminating staffing at 30 detection towers.

Alberta Wildfire has been forced to make cuts following the latest provincial budget, which include the entire rappel program, staffing for some detection towers and an air tanker unit.

The cuts come as the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry reduces its expenses by 9.1 per cent this year.

According to Minister Devin Dreeshen, the move will result in $23 million in savings for Alberta Wildfire heading into next year.

“Using lessons learned from previous years, we are modernizing our wildfire response and making changes to align with best practices in other provinces,” Dreeshen said in a statement to Global News on Wednesday.

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The Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program — also known as the RAP program — has been in place for 36 years, and employs 63 personnel each wildfire season.

RAP firefighters rappel from helicopters directly into areas where wildfires have started, and work to contain the fire to less than a hectare.

According to Alberta’s NDP, the program makes up 13 per cent of Alberta’s seasonal firefighter force. However, late Wednesday, the UCP said the program makes up only six per cent of the wildfire response.

“The savings that they see for the forestry industry as well as for rural Alberta and protecting towns and communities that otherwise might burn is huge compared to the amount of budget money they’re going to save by getting rid of this program,” NDP agriculture and forestry critic Lorne Dach said.

READ MORE: Alberta wildfires are ‘climate change in action,’ scientist says as summer heat looms

According to Dreeshen, RAP firefighters spend only two per cent of the time rappelling from helicopters, and spend the rest of the time fighting wildfires on the ground — that played into the decision made in the budget.

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

Adam Clyne, a RAP firefighter since 2012, found out the program was being cut on Monday.

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“I was speechless, I still am. It’s really hard to process,” Clyne said. “For all of us, it was more than just a job.”

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Clyne said the cut has him and other colleagues in the RAP program concerned about how the loss of the program will affect the response during the upcoming wildfire season.

“The public might not always hear about the fires. You hear about the big ones, but there [are] hundreds of them, thousands of fires every single season. The reason you don’t hear about those fires is because we catch them quick,” he said.

According to the government, firefighters from the RAP program will be redeployed to different crews in Alberta Wildfire if they choose to return for the next wildfire season.

“We will work with them to ensure that those wanting to work for us again next summer are placed on Helitack or unit crews fighting fires on the ground, where they spend 98 percent of their time,” a spokesperson for Dreeshen said. “The government hires roughly 1,000 seasonal part-time wildfire personnel, and will continue to do so.”

READ MORE: Years of fire suppression contributing to increasing Alberta wildfires: expert

“I know of 60 years of experience that aren’t coming back next year in [the] wildfire,” Clyne said. “That’s knowledge that you can’t get back, the province is never going to get back. So I hope that they learn a lesson here, and unfortunately, it’s going to be at a high cost.”

Global News has also learned Alberta Wildfire will no longer be staffing 30 of the province’s 127 wildfire detection towers as part of the cuts.

The towers, located throughout the province, are used to detect and report wildfires, located throughout the province. Each lookout covers an area of approximately 5,000 square kilometres and is responsible for reporting wildfire activity within five minutes of the 40-kilometre radius around their lookout.

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“Alberta is the only province that still depends so heavily on lookout towers,” Dreeshen said in a statement to Global News. “While we will continue to use towers in strategic locations, we are also modernizing and using technology, such as cameras and aerial patrols, to allow monitoring more efficiently.”

The province is also cutting funding for air tanker crews, funding a fleet of seven instead of eight for the upcoming wildfire season.

Dreeshen said the province will continue to rely on support from partner agencies from across Canada to help fight wildfires next year.

The province also plans to conduct an independent review of 2019 spring wildfire activity, conditions, preparedness, response and management, with a report expected to be released in 2020.

Alberta’s total wildfire management budget for 2019-20 is $117.6 million, and a contingency fund for emergency response, including wildfires, is $750 million.