British Columbia

Salmon Arm mayor wants government to reverse cuts to firefighter benefits

FOI documents revealed cuts to benefits for specialized firefighters were about not about money and standardization as publicly claimed but about eliminating a "culture of elitism." The mayor of Salmon Arm, where they're based, says those firefighters are elite and should keep their benefits.

FOI documents reveal cuts more about eliminating 'elitism' than saving money as publicly claimed

A forest firefighting training exercise in the summer of 2016. The mayor of Salmon Arm wants specialized firefighters in her town to keep their food and board benefits. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The mayor of Salmon Arm says the specialized firefighters based in her town deserve to keep their food and board benefits, even if other firefighters don't get the same treatment.

Nancy Cooper was reacting to details in documents provided by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in a freedom of information request that revealed the provincial government was eliminating food and board benefits for Rapattack firefighters, not for purposes of standardization and saving money, as it had previously claimed publicly, but to eliminate a "culture of elitism."

"Absolutely, they're an elite group of forest firefighters. Not everyone's trained to rappel out of a helicopter and fight fires in remote areas," Cooper told Radio West host Alya Ramadan.

"So, the elitism they're talking about, they want to make it sound like a bad thing, but I think it's a good thing. There's lots of groups, organizations that have special teams. The RCMP has special teams. The military has special teams.

"So, why wouldn't the forest fire service, which is a critical service, have special teams?"

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

The firefighters have received subsidized housing and catering services at the base since the 1970s, but in October, the province confirmed catering would end in January 2017 and housing would end January 2018.

At the time, the government said the cuts were about fairness and saving $119,000 to $325,000 each year, since Salmon Arm is not considered so remote as to make finding housing a challenge.

Cooper disputed that assertion.

"The rental vacancy rate in Salmon Arm is 0.5 per cent," she said. "It's pretty tough to get rental accommodations out there."

Cooper says she's hopeful local MLA Greg Kyllo will be successful in reversing the decision to cut the firefighters' benefits but says she's taking a "wait and see" approach.

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West