SALMON ARM - Controversial cutbacks at the Salmon Arm Rapattack base weren’t all about saving money as the B.C. government said — they were designed to scrub a perception of elitism and special treatment from among the ranks of firefighting crews, according to internal government documents.
Documents released by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations pursuant to a freedom of information request show the emails, reports and briefing notes behind the decision to phase out catering and accommodation services at B.C.’s only dedicated Rapattack base, a specialized unit that rappels into remote locations.
READ: Cuts at wildfire base ignite housing concerns in the Shuswap
The ministry quietly made the decision last year and said it was done “as part of a comprehensive review to ensure best use of taxpayers' dollars, and due to Salmon Arm no longer being a remote location.” It estimated the annual cost saving at $119,000.
An information note dated July 5, 2016, however, suggests the decision was about more than that. It says “elitism and special treatments have combined to create a barrier between Rappel crews and other firefighting crews and staff around the Province.” Breaking down that barrier would contribute to the larger “team culture.” The note also says that staff at the Salmon Arm base have “exhibited a history of bypassing supervisors when they disagreed with decisions, this type of response (is) anticipated on this issue.”
The Salmon Arm base is the only base in B.C. where full catering and accommodation is offered, according to the documents.
A Sept. 28, 2016 information note prepared for, and signed by, Minister Steve Thompson states: “FLNRO is committed to fair and equitable treatment of all staff and to prudent fiscal management.” Two options and a recommendation are included in the note, but were withheld from the response package pursuant to a provision in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
An undated briefing note prepared for Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo states that the acting deputy director’s position was that all crews should be treated the same and that “his decision was not about cost.”
According to the B.C. Wildfire Service, in most cases firefighters are responsible for finding their own accommodation but that in a few locations staff housing is provided either at no fee or a nominal cost. Those locations are Alexis Creek, Chetwynd, Fort Nelson and — until 2018 — Salmon Arm.
MAYOR SAYS DECISION DOESN’T ADD UP
While the ministry has argued the cutbacks will save money, a review it received on the Salmon Arm Rappel Base Catering Services Contract suggests otherwise. That report indicates there is a net positive benefit to the service to the tune of just over $45,000 when all costs and recoveries are considered. It notes the base location was chosen in the 1970s due to the occurrence of lightning strikes resulting in inaccessible forest fires and says recent analysis continues to demonstrate cost savings, due to quick response times, for on-site rappel staffing at the base.
The review also points out that roughly $260,000 was spent on 13 cabins in 1992, followed by $329,000 for seven cabins in 2013. Firefighters pay rent for room and board.
The report also acknowledges housing concerns that Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper has held from day one.
It states that “limited vacancies and high real estate prices in Salmon Arm would make it very difficult for this number of crew to find their own accommodation in town” and adds there may be a risk of losing a high number of trained staff. Roughly 35 to 41 staff work at the base.
“It doesn’t add up,” Cooper says of the cutbacks. “Its like there is something else they’re not telling us. Some of this just doesn’t jive.”
She says Salmon Arm has a housing vacancy rate of 0.5 per cent and is not confident that firefighters will be able to secure housing after accommodation is cancelled.
The mayor also remains concerned about the effect on response times if firefighters have to commute to the base.
“We are not going to let go of this issue. We’re going to keep it up because it’s too important,” she says.
The B.C. Wildfire Service’s executive director Madeline Maley defended the decision in a written statement to iNFOnews.ca.
“These decisions were the result of a comprehensive review by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The B.C. Wildfire Service is committed to maintaining its firefighting response capacity in the Salmon Arm area and the changes to accommodations and catering at the Salmon Arm base will not change response capabilities in the Salmon Arm area,” she said.
Asked specifically about limited housing vacancies in Salmon Arm and the risk of losing trained staff, Maley said staff in other areas of the province with similar vacancy rates have been able to find suitable accommodations.
“Based on our experience in over 30 other locations where fire crews are posted in B.C. (and given the ample notice that we provided to staff), we’re confident that our rapattack crews will be able to obtain lodgings each year that are close enough to the Salmon Arm base to meet our fire response targets,” she said.
Firefighters must find lodging within 30 minutes of the base to meet the standby requirement.
When asked about the discrepancy between the ministry’s identified $119,000 in savings versus the net positive benefit cited in the catering review, Maley said it’s not possible to separate the cost of on-site accommodation from the overall cost of operating the facility. In 2016, the cost for catering was about $219,000, which, after staff contributions, had a net cost to the taxpayer of $119,000, Maley said.
She said the Salmon Arm Rapattack base was considered a remote location when it was built in the 1970s, but that is no longer the case.
“The region has developed significantly over the past four decades and suitable rental units and food options are available in Salmon Arm and surrounding areas.”
When asked if the decision was intended to establish a sense of fairness and equitable treatment amongst firefighting crews, Maley said “one of the factors in the decision was to ensure consistent standards across the province.”
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