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

Alberta Wildfire has been forced to make cuts following the latest provincial budget, which include the entire rappel program, 30 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 Dreeshan, 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,” Dreeshan said in a statement to Global News on Wednesday.

The Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program — also known as the RAP program — has been in place for 36 years, and employs 65 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 provincial officials, the program makes up 13 per cent of Alberta’s seasonal firefighter force.

“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.

According to Dreeshan, 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,” Dreeshan said.

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

“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.”

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.

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 are instead prioritizing our helitack and firetack crews, which were used far more often,” Dreeshan said.

Global News has learned 30 detection towers were also part of the cuts to Alberta Wildfire.

There are 127 detection towers, 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.

“Alberta is the only province that still depends so heavily on lookout towers,” Dreeshan 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.

Dreeshan 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.

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