Since 2013 firefighting services at the Wabush Airport have been handled and paid for by Transport Canada, but as of Saturday that service will end.
Mayors of both Labrador West municipalities, Wabush and Labrador City, say they’re not sure what will happen if there’s an incident at the airport, but their volunteer firefighters won’t respond to anything they aren’t trained for.
Labrador City Mayor Fabian Benoit said there are things like jet fuel and pressurized aircraft to consider when responding to fires at an airport that requires specialized training.
“Our firefighters aren’t trained for that type of response and neither is Wabush. At the end of the day, I don’t think we wouldn’t respond, but legally we don’t have the training or equipment to do it. The liability alone would be enough for us not to respond.”
Wabush Mayor Ron Barron echoed Benoit's comments, adding they would respond to things like structure fires if it was safe, but aircraft rescue is a different ball game altogether.
“Our firefighters are volunteers. That’s asking too much of them,” Barron said. “I know first responders’ automatic instincts are to help, but they can’t. They have to be safe, and without the training and equipment it won’t be safe.”
Transport Canada took over the firefighting in 2013 when the municipalities announced they couldn’t provide the specialized services required and would not respond to calls at the airport.
Transport Canada then contracted out the firefighting service to a company that is stationed at the airport, which Barron said is essential.
“Time is of the essence for any incident at the airport, three minutes or less you have to react if you get a call,” Barron said. “There’s no way our firetrucks could respond there in a timely fashion. If Transport Canada is OK with putting the lives of residents and the public at risk, then that’s on them, it won’t be on the Town of Wabush.”
According to Transport Canada, the airport in Wabush no longer meets its requirements for providing firefighting services, which includes an airport having over 180,000 people use it per year.
Transport Canada was initially slated to pull the service over a year and a half ago but delayed the withdrawal twice as the municipalities and Labrador MP Yvonne Jones tried to get the decision changed.
Jones told SaltWire Network she exhausted every option she could think of to get Transport Canada to reverse the decision, but it would not.
“They stuck to the decision and these numbers and wouldn’t budge,” she said. “They operate 17 airports across Canada and their concern is if they bend the rules for one, they’ll have to bend for them all. They aren’t prepared to do that.”
When the decision was announced, concerns were raised by several local politicians, including Benoit and Barron, that the data being used by Transport Canada wasn’t reflective of the norm in Labrador West, but more reflective of a worldwide drop in iron ore prices and the subsequent downturn in their economy.
Jones said she relayed those concerns to Transport Canada, which gave an extension to review more recent data but stuck to the decision. She said they then asked for another six-month extension to make a stronger case, and the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Numbers were dropping more and more, airlines were cancelling flights and now Air Canada announced they’re pulling out operation altogether from Wabush Airport. Nothing has gone our way.”
Jones said she has approached it as a safety issue, an isolation issue, and a northern issue, but doesn’t think Transport Canada will budge. She’s not happy with the decision, she said, and it should have at least been delayed until the pandemic ended to see what increases in economic activity might happen in Labrador West.
Evan Careen is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Labrador for SaltWire Network