Alberta ends program for firefighters rappelling from helicopters

The Alberta government is ending a program for firefighters who rappel from helicopters to fight forest fires.

Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen says in a statement that crews have been rappelling into locations in less than two per cent of Alberta wildfires.

Dreeshen says the province will work with the firefighters to place them on other crews if they want next summer.

He says the United Conservative government is putting a priority on two other groups of firefighters who are used more often.

Helitack crews land as close as they can to a fire and hike into it, and Firetack crews are made up of contract workers.

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley says the decision to get rid of the rappel unit puts public safety and people’s homes at risk.

“For the last 40 years, incredibly brave and highly trained Albertans have rappelled out of helicopters, sometimes right on top of the fire, and fought the flames that otherwise we could not reach,” she said in a release.

A firefighter, who does not want to be identified because speaking out might affect his career, said rappel crews are better able to get access to remote areas and can split up to tackle multiple small fires burning at the same time.

The firefighter added that the eight-person crews are also helpful in creating helipads in the brush so that more personnel and equipment can be brought in.

“It’s really hamstringing our ability to get that initial action.”   

There were about 65 people in the rappel program, which requires members to weigh no more than 180 pounds and go through rigorous training.

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