Rapattack documents raise questions for mayor

Consistency named prime reason for cancelling room and board at local base.

A B.C. Forestry Service Rapattack team train in South Canoe. Salmon Arm council is concerned about the removal of food service and accommodation from the base. -File photo.

Details behind the planned closure of the Rapattack base in Salmon Arm seem to reveal motivations other than practicality.

They’ve also prompted further questions from Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper.

In September 2016, staff at the Rapattack base, which was established in the 1970s, were told by staff of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) that the room and board option at the base was to be cancelled. In October 2016, Salmon Arm council was notified of the planned closure, with catering at the barracks to end on Jan. 1, 2017 and housing on Jan. 1, 2018. During the 2015 fire season, six aircrew staff and 36 rappel staff were housed onsite.

Provincial government background documents and emails obtained by the Market News show little, if any, benefits to the decision announced to close the base, other than “consistency.”

In a July 25, 2016 FLRNO internal Information Note prepared for Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister, the ‘Background’ states: “Today this is the only base in BCWS (BC Wildfire Service) that supplies food and accommodations to staff in a community that has sufficient private resources to fulfill the need. The annual net costs to government (after staff contributions) to supply these services exceeds $119,000 annually.

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

“Staff within BCWS Salmon Arm Base have exhibited a history of bypassing supervisors when they disagreed with decisions; this type of response is anticipated on this issue.”

Under ‘Discussion’ it states: “Elitism and special treatment 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 ways as the rest of the province will contribute to the larger FLNRO team culture.”

A Sept. 16 email from “a member of the BC Liberal Party” to Steve Thomson, FLRNO minister, and several other MLAs including Premier Christy Clark, urged a reversal of the decision: “The investment (in the Salmon Arm facilities) has already been made and the costs of providing the lodging and food is recovered from the workers. Please check into the closing of this camp as well as the consistency plan. There has been a very negative ripple effect among the ministry’s firefighters and their families and friends with respect to how taxpayers’ monies are spent/invested…”

The documents also include a Salmon Arm Rappel Base Catering Services Contract Review.

It notes that at the Salmon Arm base, “staff are charged rent, whereas all other bases, where there is onsite accommodation, BCWS staff are housed free.”

A cost/benefit analysis of the catering services lists no overall cost but, instead, a total positive recovery benefit of $45,000.

“The cost analysis completed above demonstrates that the base does have a net positive benefit from this service,” states the contract review.

Cooper did a quick perusal of the documents obtained and told the Market News the reasoning for closing the base doesn’t add up.

“They’ve talked about ‘consistency, consistency,’ and yet it (the document compilation) does show there’s an advantage to having them (the rapattack crews) here; it even shows there’s a net positive benefit for the food services. I think some of the things they’re saying don’t add up.”

Cooper noted that the forests in this region are some of the best anywhere, yet the plan to close the base might save a mere $119,000 versus millions of dollars for the forests that could be jeopardized by wildfire.

She said council will keep pushing to keep the base operational.

“We’re not going to give up on it, it’s too important for Salmon Arm to have this here.”

Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo said he’s going to check with the ministry to see if the decision is going to be reversed.

He said he knows Minister Steve Thomson had said he was willing to review it, after receiving information from Salmon Arm council about vacancy rates in the community.

“I’m less inclined to get into why the decision was made initially, but to look to the future,” Kyllo said.

He noted that accommodations remain for now and he hopes catering will be reestablished in the future.

“Again that’s not my decision and I hope that clear minds will prevail.”