British Columbia

B.C. swoops in to hire specialized Alberta rappel firefighters whose program was cut last year

An email from the BC Wildfire Service has been making the rounds through the inboxes of a group of highly trained and experienced firefighters in Alberta.

BC Wildfire Service is looking to fill up to 8 vacancies

The BC Wildfire Service hopes to retain some of the highly trained firefighters from Alberta's recently defunct Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program. (BC Wildfire Service)

An email from the BC Wildfire Service has been making the rounds through the inboxes of a group of highly trained and experienced firefighters in Alberta.

It invites these firefighters to consider applying for work in B.C.

The recipients of the email were part of Alberta's Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program — specialized firefighters who are trained to rappel from a moving helicopter into inaccessible areas during a wildfire.

But Alberta cut the program in November, citing budget cuts. Around 62 firefighters were working as seasonal employees in the program at the time.

And while some have moved to other departments within Alberta's fire service, the B.C. program is hopeful some of the experts will make the cross-border jump.

"It takes extensive training and experience to do this job. So our intent was to, if they wanted to continue doing that, that they could do it in B.C.," said Erika Berg, an information officer with the BC Wildfire Service.

She says the BC Wildfire Service currently employs 36 rappel firefighters but is looking to fill up to eight vacancies for the upcoming season.

Rappel firefighters are often the first ones on scene during a remote wildfire, says Berg, because they are able to access difficult areas that can't be reached by road.

A wildfire burns outside of Fort St. James, B.C., Aug. 15, 2018. Rappel firefighters are able to access remote locations that can't be reached by road and are usually the first ones to the scene of large wildfire. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

And while Berg says it's unfortunate Alberta's government chose to close the program, she says this is an opportunity to retain that expertise.

"What's special about being a firefighter is that we do have existing contracts which allow us to assist provinces when they are in need," she said, adding that rappel firefighters who join the B.C. program might find themselves once again battling a blaze in Alberta.

'B.C. is sure getting some of Alberta's finest,' says former rappeler

Jordan Erlendson used to be a rappel firefighter in Alberta before the program was cut.

Although he has since found another job in a different industry, he says many of his former colleagues are considering B.C.'s offer.

Erlendson says it will be a boon for B.C.'s fire industry to hire so many trained veterans.

"I can't even imagine how happy we would be in Alberta if that happened to us," he said.

"B.C. is sure getting some of Alberta's finest."

But he says it's important to recognize that without its own rappel program, Alberta is vulnerable.

While Australia is currently facing its own wildfire crisis, it's not hard to remember how both Alberta and B.C. have struggled in recent years.

A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. The wildfire forced more than 80,000 people to flee the city. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

In 2018, wildfires ravaged 1.3 million hectares of B.C., while in 2016, a wildfire near Fort McMurray forced more than 80,000 people to flee the northern Alberta city and burned nearly 6,000 square kilometres of forest.

"It seemed like such a crazy decision to cut back on so much of the wildfire management personnel when it's been so hot and dry," said Erlendson about his province's program losing its funding.

Adrienne South, a spokesperson with Alberta's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, says despite cutting the program, protecting lives and communities remains its top priority.

"The decision to eliminate Alberta's wildfire rappel program was made after careful consideration of the specific advantages provided by the rappel crews, the types of wildfires Alberta has experienced in the past and the types of wildfires Alberta is expected to experience in the future," she said. 

The deadline to submit for the BC Wildfire Service's Rapattack program is Feb. 20.

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