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RAP helicopters used in different ways, says AAF

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) disputed a claim that helicopters previously used for the Alberta helicopter rappel program, also known as the RAP program, are not being used this season.

Justin Laurence, acting press secretary to AAF Minister Dreeshen, stated that the helicopters have been incorporated into the province’s wildfire response. This includes preparation and response to new wildfires, support moving crews and equipment and bucketing water on wildfires.

Adam Clyne from Save Alberta Rappel said helicopter contracts were paid for prior to a season and there were no cancellation clauses included. This means that rappel helicopters this season are already paid for, but not used for rappel firefighting.

Clyne shared a Freedom of Information request from the government that examines all the internal correspondence regarding the cuts in November. In those documents, AAF officials stated cuts were made under the assumption that they would be ending the rappel contracts. 

In one of the emails, they admitted to needing more time to make proper decisions.  

The RAP program, which was cancelled prior to this wildfire season, enabled firefighters to rappel from helicopters to fight fires in remote areas that are most easily accessed by air.

Laurence said the decision to eliminate Alberta Wildfire’s rappel program was made after careful consideration of multiple effective initial response methods, the types of wildfires Alberta has experienced in the past and those we expect to experience in the future. 

“[Why] would they cut one of their most experienced initial attack resources in November only to hire 200 new firefighters after fire season was well underway, in April? It is unclear from their communications if they are now spending more or less than we are last year,” Clyne said.

Clyne believes cutting RAP might have looked like an easy initial cost saving measure, but that they’re only saving $1.4M, which he added is nothing in the grand scheme of the entire budget.

Laurence said the savings is $1.6M.

In Budget 2020, $117.6 million was allocated for Alberta’s wildfire management budget. In response to COVID-19, an additional $5 million was invested to hire additional wildland firefighters and an additional $20 million went to support community FireSmart initiatives.

“Our primary response is that the Minister should be willing to do an independent study and listen to front line workers and not just his senior bureaucrats in Edmonton before he makes these risky decisions that could endanger people’s lives,” Clyne said.

West Yellowhead MLA Martin Long stated that rappel crews were used in less than two percent of government efforts to combat wildfire in Alberta. 

“In addition to our Helitack, Firetack and unit crews, we have hired a record 864 seasonal firefighters for this wildfire season as we prepare for a reduction in our capacity to fight fires following the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately half of the seasonal rappel crew firefighters have returned this year in new units and will continue to help keep Albertans and our communities safe,” Long said.

Laurence added that Alberta Wildfire continues to maintain all 127 lookout towers, 100 tower staff, and other methods such as cameras, helicopter patrolling, and infrared technology.

Local Fire Ban Lifted 

The fire ban in Alberta’s Forest Protection Area was revoked on May 26 in response to recent precipitation in many areas of the province, and a fire advisory has been put in its place.

The wildfire danger in the Edson Forest Area, in which Hinton is located, is currently low with no active wildfires.

Since March 1, 2020, there have been 17 wildfires in the Edson Forest Area, burning approximately 1.33 hectares, according to an update from Caroline Charbonneau, wildfire information officer in the Edson Forest Area.

There are currently nine wildfires in the Forest Protection Area of Alberta, five of which are under control and four have been turned over to the responsible parties.

Charbonneau said between March 1 and May 26, Alberta has seen 243 wildfires and 429.39 hectares burned. The five year average during the same timeframe saw 509 wildfires and 141,331.18 hectares burned, and last year 462 wildfires were reported and 106,433.12 hectares burned in the same timeframe.

The fire ban previously in place in Alberta’s Forest Protection Area was part of a number of actions to help mitigate wildfire risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Reducing the number of human-caused wildfires allowed Alberta Wildfire to make the best possible use of resources when the availability of firefighters could be reduced because of the pandemic, stated the Alberta Government website.

Clyne added that experts have said that Canada is going to experience high wildfire activity in June this year.

“Historically our largest fires have started in the beginning of May. June, a lot of times can actually be the slower, more rainy part. We call it the June monsoon, but weather doesn’t stick to a schedule like it’s supposed to. It’s hard to predict,” he said.

Tips from the provincial government on how to Firesmart your own property include removing leaves, pine needles and debris from roof and gutters, mowing grass and weeds within 10 meters of the house to 10 cm or less, clearing all dead plants, leaves and weeds within 10 meters of the house, and moving combustible items such as toys, patio furniture, cushions and firewood that are within 10 meters of any structure into some type of storage.