Photo contributed This was the Rapattack tent office, complete with canvas walls, in Salmon Arm in the 1980s.

Plans for Rapattack base questioned

Man who introduced Rapattack to B.C. sees base amenities as essential.

While BC Wildfire Service internal memos have described the Salmon Arm Rapattack base amenities and treatment as elitism, the man who introduced Rapattack to the province titles it teamwork.

On Jim Dunlop’s wall hang two plaques presented to him by the BC Forest Service when he retired.

One reads: “In appreciation of your wisdom and dedication to the development and growth of the Rapattack program. From all Rap personnel – past, present and future.”

A second plaque states: “In recognition and appreciation of over 37 years of service. Total fires: 101,248.”

When Dunlop read the June 9 article on changes to the Rapattack base in Salmon Arm, which arose from internal memos and notes from the BC Wildfire Service, he felt compelled to speak.

BCWS removed the catering services from the base in January of this year and, on Jan. 1 next year, will be removing accommodation. Crews will have to find their own living arrangements.

The documents, from a Freedom of Information request, reflect the view that consistency is the driving force behind the changes, not firefighting efficiencies or significant monetary benefits.

“BCWS continues to make significant efforts to eliminate inconsistencies in all aspects of staff’s working environment…” states an internal document.

Under ‘Discussion:’ “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.”

This makes no sense to Dunlop, who was instrumental in the creation of the program and lived at the Salmon Arm base for several fire seasons.

“I can’t grasp the rationale. They seem to say it’s unfair to the other crews who don’t have those services. There’s a certain amount of truth in that. When I was director, you would normally try to correct those inequities. But you wouldn’t do it by taking people down, you’d do it by building people up.”

No one from BCWS was available to speak to the Observer, but a communications employee pointed to a letter to the editor sent to the newspaper the previous week by Madeline Maley, executive director of the wildfire service.

She stated: “…I’d like to clarify for your readers that the BC Wildfire Service is not closing the Salmon Arm wildfire base. I’d also like to clarify that while the base does offer Rapatttack training, other firefighting crews are also stationed there…”

Referring to the removal of catering and accommodation services, Maley continued: “Catering and accommodation services were first offered in the 1970s when Salmon Arm was considered a more remote location than it is now. That is no longer the case and suitable rental units and food options are available in Salmon Arm and surrounding areas…”

She concluded: “The decision to phase out accommodation and catering services at the Salmon Arm base was the result of a comprehensive review and will not affect our wildfire response capability…”

Most of Dunlop’s career was on the ground, on the front line fighting fires. He rose up through the ranks to eventually become Director of Provincial Forest Protection in Victoria. He was also a forest fire consultant for the United Nations and several countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

He explains that Rapattack was born in 1977 in the tiny community of Lower Post on the Alaska Highway.

A fire in that area became well-established because a crew had to make a long and difficult climb to reach it. Then a ‘blow up’ occurred just as the crew arrived on site. To evacuate, they had to wade into a nearby swamp and struggle onto a helicopter as it hovered with its skids just touching the water.

The primary reason for creating Rapattack was crew safety, Dunlop explains, with a spinoff value being a significant reduction in firefighting costs.

In the 1980s the Rapattack crew moved from Lower Post to Salmon Arm.

“What’s there now, I had it built,” he says of the Salmon Arm base. “But we lived first in tents and a kitchen trailer. The crew was proving to be really, really useful… Districts would call in for a rappel crew; they didn’t want to send crews in walking because of danger.”

A 60-foot training tower was built, and then a kitchen and locker room.

He says the small cabins were built after he left.

Dunlop emphasizes that Rapattack crews go all over the province and time is of the essence.

“Any initial attack on the fire, but especially Rapattack going to inaccessible fires, you need to be able to respond quickly. I can’t imagine people spread out all over downtown, or maybe far away, having them respond. I think what the current management is calling elitism, I call team work. If you want a crew to learn to work together, to pull together, have one common goal and to be effective…, you have them all live together.”

He said, instead of cutting catering in Salmon Arm, why not ask for contractors and set up catering at all the camps around the province. The crews would then pay for room and board and it would cost the government nothing.

“It seems a logical way to go, rather than taking something away from somebody.”

He says he doesn’t understand what the forest service is doing.

“I don’t like to criticize them, but I’m not afraid to,” he said, noting if there are problems with personnel, they need to be properly managed.

If he had a crew that was acting like “big shots,” he would give them push-ups, military-style.

“Nobody objected to that, they all thought it was part of it.”

He said he suspects that the people making the major decisions have not had fire experience, noting it must be understood how decisions are going to affect the firefighters breathing the smoke.

If management doesn’t have fire experience, then they need direct access to someone who does.

“It’s like appointing a dentist or a PhD to be chief pilot of the airline. They just don’t have the experience.”

Dunlop doesn’t understand the talk about elitism.

“Look up the definition. It’s somebody that’s super trained, highly motivated, producing great results. Why worry about the elitism of Rap crews? The three-person initial attack crew, they’re elite too, they’re physically fit. I just don’t get it.”

He wonders what’s next – will police tactical response teams and other highly trained teams be at risk of cuts?

Both Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper and Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo have expressed concern at the removal of catering and the planned removal of accommodation at the base. Cooper pointed out that the vacancy rate is essentially zero and the crew won’t be able to find rentals.

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