Former members of an elite Alberta wildfire crew say government budget cuts have left the province grappling with its current blazes.
Jordan Erlandson, a former member of Alberta’s RapTack team, said, “We could have been the difference-makers.”
Those firefighters were trained to rappel from a helicopter to bring wildfires under control while they still covered only a few hectares. When a storm sparked multiple fires, they could be extinguished before they merged. He also cleared a landing space for other helicopters to bring in crew and gear.
That program once had 63 firefighters deployed around the province, including Edson, Fox Creek and Lac La Biche – communities now at risk of one of the busiest early fire seasons in provincial history.
But that program was scrapped by the United Conservatives in 2019.
“They told us the program was terminated,” said former member Adam Kline. “He just said budget.”
The savings were $1.4 million. The province’s wildfire budget for 2019 was approximately $117 million.
At the time, then-Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Drieschen said that firefighters spend only two percent of their time rappelling from a helicopter, and spend the rest of their time fighting wildfires on the ground. This figure is based on the number of times rappelling skills were used in an average of over 1,400 fires in Alberta from 2014 to 2018.
Drieschen said at the time that these figures showed that raptakers’ skills were better utilized than on the ground.
However, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and given to The Canadian Press suggest that Driessen underestimated the importance of the airstrike.
Those documents, from internal government communications, show that between 2014 and 2018 the Ripple crew was called out about 100 times a year. He was actually forced to fire about 23 times a year.
“It is an assessment of the wildfire that the rappel crew was deployed to where there was no other viable means of access,” said an email from a government forester.
Government spokeswoman Leanne Niblock said Alberta has other methods of tackling remote fires, including getting out of a flying helicopter and walking to the nearest road.
“We continue to do everything we can to fight these fires and keep Albertans and their property and homes safe,” she said in an email.
Alberta initially planned to replace the RapTack crew by hanging firefighters below the flying helicopters and depositing them at the fire site. Transport Canada blocked that plan, saying it was too dangerous.
Alberta documents acknowledge that it will take time to beat through bushes and clear landing pads to get to the hot spots.
A note from a government forester said, “These activities can be carried out by other trained personnel by driving down or driving to a nearby location.” “Obviously it will take additional time.”
Erlandsson pointed out that rappel crews sometimes jump multiple times over the same fire as part of a larger expedition. They estimate that teams jumped as many as 20 times per fire, and possibly as many as 100 times, in the fire that leveled parts of Fort McMurray in 2016.
Plus, rappelling is one of the fastest and safest ways to get through dense bush, muskeg, and dense jungle. This empowers firefighters to work with heavy equipment instead of having to work on the ground.
“That way, we don’t have firefighters who have reached the fire line by the time they reach it,” Kline said.
But it wasn’t about jumping.
“Rapple was just a tool,” Erlandson wrote in an email. “Other equipment included bigger pumps, bigger helicopters, bigger buckets on the helicopters, bigger crews, more hoses, more saws and more experience.”
Meanwhile, Alberta is battling a fire season that had nearly 100 active fires as of Monday. About 29,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes in several communities, although the evacuation order was lifted late Sunday for Edson, a city of about 8,400 people west of Edmonton.
“We’d catch some of them when they were little,” Erlandson said.
Raptackers could help, said Ryan Kalamanovich, a contracted firefighter currently battling the blaze near Edson.
“They’re definitely missed,” he said.
Kalmanovitch said Monday that even on relatively calm days, Raptacker can help extinguish fire perimeters and hot spots.
“They will be able to act when they are small and that will not allow us to divert resources,” he said. “They will absolutely be useful, probably more so than the other crew.”
Alberta is expected to experience larger and more intense wildfires as climate change lengthens the fire season and depletes fuel in the wild. Sooner or later, Alberta was going to experience a spring such as is happening now.
“It’s going to cost taxpayers in the long run,” Kline said. “This spring is a prime example.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 9, 2023.