Province to review Rapattack

Plan to remove accommodation now pushed back.

The B.C. government will be reviewing the availability of accommodation for crews fighting BC wildfires, a move that bodes well for Salmon Arm’s Rapattack base, at least temporarily.

Mayor Nancy Cooper reports that ministry staff have told her accommodation will remain at the local base through 2018.

“While this is good news, we’re not going to be giving up on it… We will still be staying on top of it,” she says. “We’ve always said this (the Salmon Arm base) should be the model, they shouldn’t be taking this apart…”

In September 2016, staff at the Salmon Arm base, which was established in the 1970s, were told by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations that the room and board option at the base was to be cancelled. A month later, Salmon Arm council was notified that catering at the barracks would 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.

The news inflamed many members of the community, with council strongly objecting to the plan.

Now, while catering has been removed, accommodation will remain, at least until the end of December 2018.

Rob Schweitzer, fire centre manager at the Kamloops Fire Centre, confirmed the news.

“One of the things we wanted to look at as an organization is our accommodation needs across the province for all of our crews. Because we’re doing that work, we thought the right thing to do would be to delay any decision on the Salmon Arm base in regards to accommodation until that review is completed.”

He said the mayor mentioned a local housing society may be doing work with the college to build student housing.

“So we’re engaged in those conversations as well,” he said, explaining the province will look at all options in all centres where crews are based. An option, for instance, might be to utilize college housing, as a college might be closed while firefighting is in its core season, he said.

“We don’t supply accommodation in any non-isolated areas in the province. And so when you start looking at the housing challenges throughout this province, we thought it would be the right thing to do to have a look at those centres where we have crews, what those housing challenges may look like to come up with a broader strategy…”

Proponents of the Salmon Arm Rappatack base suggested that the local set-up with accommodation in-house be the model for the province because of advantages such as bonding between pilots and ground crews, speed of response, lower cost and less hassle for exhausted crews.

Regarding speed of response, Schweitzer said it’s not necessarily true that it’s faster to live onsite. He said crews are given a response time according to level of fire hazard – if it’s 30 minutes, they know they have to be ready to go within 30 minutes.

He said lack of accommodation in different areas in B.C. is the catalyst for the review, and he doesn’t want to speculate what the outcome will be.

Schweitzer emphasizes that no matter what happens regarding accommodation at the base: “We are committed to maintaining a base at Salmon Arm. It’s a base that was built back in the ’70s, it’s one of our flagship bases, it’s a great location, and we plan to have crews stationed in Salmon Arm forever. This isn’t about the closure of the base and it never was. It’s a great facility for us, we use it as a training facility during the off season, so that base will be there and will remain in Salmon Arm.”

Asked what the Salmon Arm base without accommodation and catering would look like, he says: “It would look like a lot of our other bases around the province. It would have staff that report to a base that has a handful of full-time or part-time officers or support staff, and in this case in Salmon Arm, depending on the season, we have nine to 12 initial-attack response crews with trucks and helicopters and things like that to respond to fires…”

Salmon Arm would likely be different from other bases in that it would be used for staff training, he said, just as the base in Merritt is.