British Columbia

Salmon Arm Rapattack base closure not about money: government documents

Documents released as part of a FOI request outline changes to Salmon Arm's rapattack base were all about a perception of elitism among other firefighting crews and not about saving taxpayers money.

Documents reveal cutbacks were aimed to eliminate elitism and build team culture

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

The provincial government's announcement eight months ago to no longer provide room and board to specialized firefighters based in Salmon Arm had nothing to do with saving money, according to documents released by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO). 

Last October, the government estimated it could save taxpayers $119,000 a year by cutting out the services for members of the Salmon Arm Rapattack base. 

Internal background documents and emails obtained under the Access to Information Act spell out a different reason for the controversial cutbacks. 

A briefing note prepared in September 2016 for Shuswap Liberal MLA Greg Kyllo reports B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) acting deputy director Murray Henry came to the Rapattack base and told staff "his decision was not about the cost." 

An information note prepared for a FLNRO assistant deputy minister on July 25, 2016 reads "elitism and special treatments have combined to create a barrier between Rappel crews and other firefighting crews and staff around the province."

"Breaking down this barrier by treating Salmon Arm staff in the same way as the rest of the province will contribute to the larger FLNRO team culture." 

The 177 pages of documents also include a contract review done of the Salmon Arm set-up in 2015. 

It concluded the status quo cost the government less money than if it were to pay firefighters a per diem.

It said, "the cost analysis completed demonstrates that the base does have a net positive benefit from this service."

The rappel program moved to Salmon Arm in the late 1970s with the intent of creating a firefighting unit of initial attack crews capable of rappelling into incidents via helicopter. 

Part of the program included full catering of meals and living accommodations for staff on the base because Salmon Arm was considered a remote location. 

The documents say, "today this is the only base in BCWS that supplies food and accommodations to staff in a community that has sufficient private resources to fulfill the need."

"BCWS continues to make significant efforts to eliminate inconsistencies in all aspects of staff's working environment." 

Last fall, the government announced plans to end catering at the barracks on Jan. 1, 2017 and housing would be eliminated the following January.