Forestry minister says cutting firefighting rappel program not a 'risky roll of the dice'

Alberta's forestry minister is defending his decision to cut a wildfire fighting program, saying it's "not a risky roll of the dice" because the province has a better alternative. 

For 36 years, Alberta's Helitack-Rappel, or RAP program, has enabled firefighters to rappel from helicopters to fight forest fires.

The UCP government has decided to slash the 63-person program, garnering an annual savings of $1.4 million, but also drawing hot criticism from firefighters and the NDP Opposition.

But Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said the decision is not just about cutting costs; it's about effectiveness. 

"This is management and wildfire experts that are actually saying there's better, more efficient ways to fight fires," Dreeshen told the Calgary Eyeopener.

Left: CBC / Right: Alberta Wildfire/YouTube

"We're using an alternative team that will actually go out and do that similar type of work that they were doing," he said. 

Dreeshen pointed to the human external cargo (HEC) pilot program, which was initially tested with two crews in the Slave Lake area during the 2018 wildfire season.

Dreeshen said this technique is more effective than the RAP program, and said it's been used by Parks Canada for decades in backcountry and emergency evacuation operations.

The system consists of a long line anchored to a helicopter that can transport, insert and extract up to five people, or 500 kilograms, at one time.

A spokesperson for the minister said the program has now expanded to include four crews across the province.

Firefighters push back

Firefighting associations across Alberta have issued statements lambasting the cut, saying this puts communities in danger, because the RAP program's rapid response is critical in reducing the spread of fire.    "We are only three years removed from the worst wildfire and natural disaster in Canadian history, and this is worthy of a budget cut? Have we not learned any lessons?" said Rob Van Hecke, president of the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters Association, in a news release.   "This decision does not bode well for Albertans," Van Hecke said.

But Dreeshen said those kinds of comments are a result of fear mongering, fed by the Opposition. 

"I would tell them that it's not a risky roll of the dice, and we are constantly trying to find new and improved ways of fighting forest fires," he said. 

"This management change is not going to put them in danger," he said.

Dreeshen said the government is also setting aside $750 million for an emergency response fund, and that the province is committed to approving any resources necessary to combat a major wildfire. 

"We don't want politics getting in the way of how we fight fires. We want experts in the actual field to actually say how we should actually fight fires."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.