British Columbia

B.C. Wildfire Services says Salmon Arm cuts not about elitism, despite documents

The executive director of B.C. Wildfire Services (BCWS) reaffirmed her department's stance that controversial cuts at a Salmon Arm firefighting base were about fairness and cost-cutting — not about eliminating a culture of elitism, as suggested in ministry documents obtained by CBC News.

Executive director disputes claims in ministry documents, says cuts are about fairness and cost savings

Forest firefighting training exercise in summer of 2016 teaches recruits how to dig a hand guard next to a fire. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The executive director of B.C. Wildfire Services (BCWS) reaffirmed her department's stance that controversial cuts at a Salmon Arm firefighting base were about fairness and cost-cutting — not about eliminating a culture of elitism, as suggested in ministry documents obtained by CBC News.

In October 2016, BCWS cut staff catering and accommodation services at the Rapattack base in Salmon Arm, saying the move would save taxpayers $119,000 a year and bring base services more in line with other bases in the province.

But documents released by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations under the Access to Information Act suggest the cuts were intended to fight a culture of "elitism and special treatments [that] have combined to create a barrier between Rappel crews and other firefighting crews and staff around the province."

Madeline Maley, executive director of BCWS, said she was not aware of any such barriers between crews.

"I'm not aware of any animosity at all," Maley said. "It's certainly not part of the decision-making."

All crews highly trained, exec says

The base's 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.

Maley said that despite their special training, BCWS does not think of them as any more or less elite than other firefighting crews.

"We as an organization would prefer to think of all our firefighters as highly trained," she said.

"Rappel firefighters come to the fire location in a different way than other crews. They come out of a helicopter and rappel down and once they're on the ground, they're a firefighter like any other firefighter. And we have many staff who are also highly trained for things like chainsaw [use] and aviation."

Mayor says housing availability a concern

In 2016, 35 staff at the base paid $560 a month for food and accommodations, with the government paying substantially more. Accommodation will still be available at the base until January 2018, but food service ended January 2017.

Accommodation is provided at bases in locations that are considered remote and hard for staff to find their own accommodation. Maley said BCWS no longer considers Salmon Arm remote enough to provide those accommodations.

"In terms of fair and equitable treatment to all staff, that's really where you land," she said. "There's not a compelling reason based on that criteria to provide that accommodation [anymore]."

Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper has spoken out strongly against the accommodations cuts, saying availability of rental accommodation in Salmon Arm is "almost nil" during the summer due to tourism.

Maley says BCWS is aware of those concerns, but says firefighters have been able to find accommodations in locations with similar vacancy rates elsewhere in the province.

Despite calls from Cooper and Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo to reverse the cuts, Maley said BCWS remains committed.

"We've made the decision and we're moving forward with it," she said.

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West.

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