British Columbia

Province says cutting Salmon Arm firefighters' benefits about taxpayer dollars, fairness

Province says Salmon Arm not remote and no other firefighters get food benefits

Posted: November 04, 2016

Forest firefighting recruits dig a hand guard next to a fire during a training exercise. Food and housing benefits for specialized firefighters who rappel into inaccessible forest fires will be cut in January of 2017. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The provincial government's decision to cut food and housing benefits to specialized "Rapattack" forest firefighters in Salmon Arm will save between $119,000 and $325,000 each year, a spokeswoman told CBC Radio One's Radio West.

Amounting to less than one half of one per cent of the "integrated resource operations" budget of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the cut is being defended as the best use of taxpayers' dollars.

The reduction was made quietly in early October over the concerns of local leaders who wondered how firefighter and helicopter crews would find lodging in a town with a rental vacancy rate described by the mayor as "almost nil."

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"For 30 people … to find rental for six months or four months, depending on how long they're here, I think that will be very difficult," Mayor Nancy Cooper said.

Rapattack firefighters are deployed to fires where helicopters cannot land and other vehicles cannot access. They rappel in from helicopters to fight fires quickly and build helipads for future helicopter operations.

Salmon Arm is the only Rapattack base in B.C. 35 firefighters stayed at the base in 2016, each paying $560 per month in food and board with the government paying substantially more.

Cut about fairness to other firefighters

The government says the cut is also about fairness, since no other firefighters have food provided to them by the province.

It says some places have lodging provided — Alexis Creek, Fort Nelson, Dease Lake and Princeton — but Salmon Arm is no longer considered a remote enough location for those benefits.

The cut comes after the province constructed six new cabins on the base in 2013 for lodging. The government says those buildings, along with the rest of the barracks facilities, will be re-purposed in some way.

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It says firefighters who arrive at the base in May should be able to find accommodation before the tourist season.

Radio West reached out to the firefighters' union, the BCGEU, which declined comment .

Food services end for the firefighters in January 2017. Lodging will be cut in January 2018.

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West


To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Province says cutting Salmon Arm firefighters' benefits about taxpayer dollars, fairness