You don’t have to be a learned scholar to understand the importance of Ontario’s forests. Of course, forests are integral to the economy for tourism and raw materials. However, they play a crucial role in protecting our environment. They help cool the areas surrounding them and control the erosion of topsoil. They even clean the air! TreeCanada says, “Trees reduce temperatures and mitigate the heat-island effect through evapotranspiration; they sequester the emission of greenhouse gasses by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; they remove air pollutants by trapping particulate matter in their leaves, needles and bark.”
I’m sure many readers would be surprised by the number of calls and emails my office receives from constituents concerned about our woodlands. Recently constituents have been telling me they are upset at the government’s seeming indifference to protecting this priceless resource from wildfires. That is, they are indifferent until a crisis is upon us. But by then, it’s too late.
In Ontario, the government has let a crisis build within the very organization meant to fight fires. Wildland firefighters are employed within the Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Service (AFFES). According to the MNRF’s own numbers, nearly 40% of wildland firefighters will permanently leave the FireRangers program after each fire season. That means that the AFFES must recruit as many as 300 new firefighters annually. That’s excluding roles that require higher levels of experience and qualification, such as technicians or managers.
In the July 14, 2022, edition of BayToday.com, the paper shared the concerns of a former wildland firefighter who reluctantly resigned from her job. The former employee said, “What would you pick: a job in fire for $56,000 a year or work in a mine for $115,000 a year working four on and four off?” The worker said, ‘We’re taking on workloads that are almost impossible to fill during busy fire seasons,’ sometimes working upwards of 19 consecutive days for 12 to 16 hours at a time.”
OPSEU president JP Hornick agrees that the government’s approach to attracting and retaining fire rangers is a major concern. On June 2, 2023, the CBC quoted Hornick saying, “Every season [the province] faces the same problem. There’s a scramble to manage with too few workers. What you have is that young workers start, but there are too few permanent jobs, and so they leave.”
In addition to low wages, the province only offers firefighters three to six-month contracts rather than year-round employment. So, it is pretty hard to settle down and make roots. As a result, they are turning to more lucrative, full-time jobs with benefits and stability. As a result, wildland firefighting teams are inadequately staffed, and woodlands in the North and the communities around them risk going under-protected.
On May 16 of this year, during question period, I reminded MNRF Minister Graydon Smith that I wrote to him last fall about these staffing issues and that the minister assured me in his response that the MNRF was exploring recruitment and retention strategies to overcome these staffing shortages. I informed him also that, just days ago, Chapleau Cree Chief Corston told me that Chapleau would only have 4 operating wildland fire crews this season, down from 10 last season. Considering environmental realities are leading toward more frequent and severe fires, common sense tells us that this mammoth 60 percent cut is the opposite of what is needed.
I implored the minister to immediately raise wages for wildland firefighters and maintain adequate staffing levels across northern Ontario. You can see this exchange on my Facebook page by clicking here.
I would be remiss not to talk about the growing threat of fire season without mentioning the leading cause of more extreme fires: the climate crisis. It is well known that Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) predicts that for the foreseeable future, fire seasons will start earlier and end later, even under the most optimistic climate models.
Just a week ago, during question period, the Premier refused even to acknowledge that Ontario will continue to face more extreme forest fires as climate change causes hotter summers with less precipitation. According to a recent article in Scientific America, a 2022 study found that the parts of Northern Quebec and Ontario “will likely see the number and size of wildfires increase faster than most other regions of the country.” To most readers, it would seem imperative that the government, at a minimum, ensure that the crews in charge of fire suppression and containment are fully staffed with experienced workers before each season starts. However, the government must admit they have a problem before addressing it.
The good news is; however, it doesn’t have to stay this way. Some insight and goodwill on the part of the government can correct this problem. The trick is to get Premier Ford to open his eyes and listen to the people who understand the realities of what is happening.
Politicians do not have to have all the answers. But we do need to listen to what our constituents tell us when they see a problem and then turn to the frontline workers and management teams to help find solutions that work.
I sincerely thank those constituents who shared their thoughts and observations with me. As a result of their calls and letters, I raised such concerns with the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) in the Legislature weeks ago. This is an excellent example of how democracy should work. Now we need to see if Premier Ford and Minister Smith listened and understand the urgent need to act.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at my new address, email@example.com or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député