Alberta shuts down their rappel program and closes up to 30 fire lookout towers

The reductions will affect 63 firefighters who may be moved to other units. One air tanker group will also be cut.

Alberta Firefighters
Alberta firefighters in 2016. Alberta Wildfire photo.

5:42 p.m. MST November 7, 2019

The Canadian province of Alberta is eliminating their helicopter rappel program. Due to budget woes throughout the province the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is reducing its expenses by 9 percent, which translates to $23 million less funding for Alberta Wildfire this year.

Rappelers respond to wildfires in helicopters and if there is no suitable landing zone upon arrival, descend to the ground on a rope while the helicopter hovers. The concept is to arrive at a fire very soon after its reported and aggressively attack the fire while small to keep it from becoming large and endangering communities and private property.

Below are excerpts from an article at Globalnews:

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.

According to [Minister Devin] 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.

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.

In 2016 Alberta had 64 four-person Helitack Crews, 2 eight-person Helitack Crews, 9 seven-person Rappel Crews, 8 twenty-person Unit Crews, and 35 eight-person Firetack Crews.

As part of the budget reduction between 15 and 30 of the province’s 127 wildfire lookout towers will no longer be staffed.

The province is also cutting their air tanker program, reducing the fleet from eight to seven air tanker groups. In 2014 there were nine air tanker groups, each consisting of an air tanker and an Air Attack Officer in a lead plane (or “Bird Dog”).

Alberta has never employed smokejumpers, or Parattack as they are called in British Columbia where they are based at Fort St. John and Mackenzie. The BC jumpers are occasionally used on fires in Alberta and Yukon.

In 2016 Alberta slashed their wildfire suppression budget by $15 million. One of the effects was cutting the tanker contracts from 123 to 93 days, saying goodby to the aircraft in mid-August.

The province had a very busy fire season this year, with a number of hand crews from the U.S. traveling north to lend a hand. In at least one location in Alberta last summer the peat moss was so dry that it turned to dust when disturbed, and in the presence of sufficient heat and oxygen was damn near explosive.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

3 thoughts on “Alberta shuts down their rappel program and closes up to 30 fire lookout towers”

    1. Not a wise move? How so? Costs to suppress Wildland Fires are rapidly increasing each year. Thus, agencies hands across North America are being forced to find efficiencies and cost savings internally.

      Realistically, agencies are going to need to share more resources moving forward. That means sharing of resources internationally, whether people like it or not. At the end of the day, it is cheaper to import and export resources, then to have to pay our wages, benefits and pensions.

      Being a Wildland Firefighter for the past number of decades, I have seen budgets managed irresponsibly and seen budgets slashed as a result of incumbent governments. What doesn’t seem to change, is our attitudes to look at new and innovative ways to suppress fire on the landscape. Tax payers can no longer continue to be burdened with annual tax increases.

      So, while I do not always agree with changes that are pushed on to our brethren firefighters, I can tell you that we always continue to adapt and to the changes. Similar to that of fire suppression and the constant changing environment.

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