Rappel firefighter program eliminated

Masha Scheele

The provincial government announced it will cut an elite firefighting program whose members have trained in Hinton for decades.

The Rappel Program (RAP), part of the Wildland Firefighters, has been around since 1983 and currently employs 63 highly trained firefighters. These firefighters jump from helicopters directly into areas where fires have started in order to contain blazes from spreading.

Split into nine crews based out of Hinton, Whitecourt, and Lac la Biche, they actioned a number of initial attack fires in the past year, according to Logan Mahoney, RAP firefighter.

Mahoney has been in the rappel program for six years, four as a member and two as a sub leader.

In the last year he became a certified spotter and also assisted with recruit training for the past two years. As an initial attack resource, crews were sent all over the province to be pre-positioned in the event of a new fire.

Crews also did tours on large scale campaign fires in Slave Lake, Peace River and High Level, where Mahoney said they were able to cut helipads to provide access to get boots on the ground in isolated locations on the fire.

“Because of these cuts, we’re looking at 63 less firefighters, and nine less specialized crews. This is detrimental when we are seeing longer fire seasons, and more fires each year,” said Mahoney.

The program currently makes up about 13 per cent of the province’s seasonal firefighter force. 

Adrienne South, press secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, stated that roughly 1,000 seasonal part-time wildfire personnel are hired each year in Alberta and will continue to be hired, with approximately 500 of those being boots on the ground.

“For the rappel program, 98 percent of their time was already spent fighting fires on the ground.  They have been deployed on hundreds of wildfires, but in the vast majority of cases, there are other ways for firefighters to arrive at those wildfires,” she said.

The 63 rappel firefighters can re-apply to other programs, such as 272 Helitack positions, and 160 Unit positions

West Yellowhead MLA, Martin Long, stated that this program was used in less than two per cent of Alberta’s wildfires, and the elimination of the program will not take away from the fact that fires are put out by the boots on the ground in coordination with the heavy equipment and aerial suppression.

Unsure of where the two per cent figure came from, Mahoney stated that in his experience he has rappelled onto well over two per cent of fires he was sent to.

“I have worked on close to 80 fires, in both Alberta and the United States. I would estimate that I rappelled onto around 20 per cent of the fires I’ve worked,” he said.

Mahoney stated that the rappel crew saves valuable time that would be spent walking in while a fire can become more intense, harder to control, and more expensive.

Hinton’s Training Center has trained all members of the rappel programs, but they will no longer offer the program going forward.

Experienced members go over the previous fire season each spring and prepare to work with new recruits at the centre.

“Continuous training is a priority of the rappel program and these two months spent in Hinton are incredibly valuable for our training,” stated Mahoney.

Each spring they work on their rappel recertification, involving refreshing emergency procedures in the rappel tower and doing a number of live rappels. 

This recertification also includes ancillary, or secondary, procedures such as cargo deployments and extractions which are an asset only provided by RAP, explained Mahoney.

“Because of our high retention rate, the training provided by senior members of our program is exemplary,” said Mahoney.

Long stated that the centre will not see any staffing cuts as a result of the elimination of the rappel program.

“The training facility in Hinton is used by Agriculture and Forestry as well as a number of other organizations throughout the year. The centre is used for training several firefighting and support positions, and that will continue to be the case going forward.  No staffing changes are expected at the training centre,” confirmed South.

Mahoney explained that without all the current RAP members and new recruits attending the school this spring, the school will be down 80 people over two months.

“Every recruit also goes through the members initial fire training put on by the school, which is apart from the rappel training. This also means that there will be roughly 30 less students a year which is roughly the size of a class,” stated Mahoney. 

Throughout their stay at the Hinton Training Centre each year, the members also host a charity run and film festival to raise thousands of dollars for local charities. This was their way of giving back to the community.

The Hinton Training Centre did not respond to questions from The Voice on what would happen to these fundraising initiatives.

The aftermath of the Mountain Pine Beetle means communities like Hinton are more vulnerable to wildfires and this program was one form of protection for the community.

“As you know, Mountain Pine Beetle, its elimination and the protection of communities across the region is a main focus for me. Communities affected by MPB, like all communities at risk of wildfire, will continue to have firefighting resources positioned accordingly in response to the level of hazard in the area,” stated Long.

Besides the loss of the rappel program, changes are also being made to detection tower infrastructure. Currently, all 126 lookout towers in Alberta will remain in place, stated South.

“We are finding better ways to utilize our lookout towers. That includes using cameras, satellite imaging/aerial surveillance and infrared technology,” she stated.

The towers will be strategically staffed depending on where wildfire risk exists.