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Alberta firefighters call for reversal of cut to helicopter rappel program

Firefighters who rappel from helicopters to fight forest fires are calling on the Alberta government to reverse its decision to end the program.

'It was an effective program that's been around for a long time,' says AUPE vice-president

Logan Mahoney, a rappel sub leader, spoke against the cut to the Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program at an Alberta NDP news conference in front of other firefighters. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Firefighters who rappel from helicopters to fight forest fires called on the Alberta government Thursday to reverse its decision to end the program.

The end of the Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program [RAP] was revealed Wednesday in a statement from Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen. Dreeshen called it a budget decision and said the government is putting priority on two other groups of firefighters who are used more often. 

Close to 63 firefighters have been employed and trained by the program. The UCP government will work to place them in other crews, he said.

On Thursday, the NDP opposition hosted a news conference with a dozen firefighters who were employed by the RAP program.

An image from a video showing a firefighter rappelling from a helicopter. The Alberta government is ending the rappel program. (Alberta Environment/YouTube)

Logan Mahoney, a rappel sub leader, has been with the program for six years. He voiced his displeasure with the decision to cut the RAP program.

"Initially, [I was] pretty confused and devastated as I'm sure everybody here was, but then it kind of settled in that we're not goning to be able to provide our service for the community and help protect people and communities," Mahoney said. 

Mahoney said firefighters weren't consulted about the decision and want to see the program reinstated.

"That's the ultimate goal here, and that's why everyone's standing together and pushing as much as we can, so that we're able to provide a voice when we haven't had one to defend ourselves and show our true value," he said.

Dreeshen said Wednesday that firefighters rappelled into locations in less than two per cent of wildfires in Alberta. 

Mahoney questioned that statistic.

"Much of Alberta is isolated," he said. "You can't get to these locations other than by air. In many cases there isn't enough land around that we can we can drive to or land at. So if we're able to get there, we can stop [the fire] in five to 10 minutes."

Mike Dempsey, a vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees who represents members of the northeast part of the province, including firefighters in the RAP program.

"I'm a bit shocked and saddened, of course," Dempsey said.

"It was an effective program that's been around for a long time and I think what's mostly shocking about this is the fact that we have had our worst fires [in] memory in the last 10 years."

Dempsey questions whether cutting the program will result in any savings.

"It seems like they're wanting to save a bit of money, but it's going to cost them a whole lot more in suppression costs."

@Travismcewancbc

Travis.mcewan@cbc.ca

About the Author

Travis McEwan

Videojournalist

Travis McEwan is a video journalist, who has not won any awards. Originally from Churchill, Manitoba, he's spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca