Wildfire fighter retention issue is putting one of Northern Ontario’s greatest assets at risk.
Each year around Thanksgiving, Northerners bite the bullet and grudgingly go about closing down camp for the winter so it is all set to go as soon as in spiring arrives. When spring rolls around, we want to be able to jump into our boats or onto our quads, ready to rock. It is so disappointing if we fail to do so and have to wait and tend to matters in spring. As US President Benjamin Franklin said, “Don’t put off till tomorrow what can be done today.”
As an elected representative, I believe using the same philosophy should be applied to our government. Take care of things while it is calm before we find ourselves reacting and struggling to keep things together down the road. It is a common sense principle.
I recently read a Village Media online news article about the overall wildfire situation in the province. It reminded me of unfinished business the government has yet to resolve. As I see it, Ontario is leaving itself exposed to potential disasters if we don’t act now to step our game in forest fire prevention.
Thousands of square kilometres of bush surround our communities here in the North, and forests constitute an enormous portion of our economy. That is why I have on numerous occasions raised the matter of Ontario’s failing wildfire fighting program with Graydon Smith, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).
I say failing because, for one thing, Ontario’s wildfire program is dangerously understaffed. In June of this year, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said the province was short 50 fire crews, thus leaving countless communities at an utterly avoidable risk. OPSEU President JP Hornick says, “Every season [the province] faces the same problem. There’s a scramble to manage with too few workers.” The problem is that the positions offered are only for three-to-six-month rather than year-round contracts. “So, what you have is that young workers start but there are too few permanent jobs, and so they leave.”
The solution to this is not exactly news to the MNRF. Records indicate that in the past when Ontario operated a more rigorous proactive approach to wildfire management, wildfire fighters worked in the off-fire season clearing brush that adds tinder-dry fuel to fires that start and then serve to intensify the heat and flames. OPSEU’s Hornick explained, “They would do the kind of upkeep work in other areas of the ministry or across ministries to actually help prevent forest fires the following season and to help with things like snow clearing and whatnot.” MNRF can also carry out controlled prescribed burning. Such measures effectively help to prevent out-of-control wildfires. Prescribed fires strategically reduce fuels in forested areas that are predictably at high risk of burning nearby.
Some would say that employing forestry workers year-round is an unaffordable luxury. I could not disagree more. First of all, forest remediation and cleanup were the standard practice for many years. The practice was dropped purely for cost-cutting measures. Secondly, the world is changing drastically, especially with the growing problems of climate change. Around our homes and in our communities, we go to great lengths to protect our assets. Our forests are of inestimable value economically, socially and environmentally. Forests are critical components of our ecosystem as they prevent flooding and erosion, cool the earth, provide habitat for wildlife and convert CO2 into the very oxygen we breathe. They are an asset we can’t afford not to protect.
The second problem contributing to the poor retention of forest firefighters is that Ontario’s wages are not in line with that of other provinces and nations. Ontario’s wildfire fighters are classified and paid as resource technicians. Let’s face it: standard resource technicians are not generally exposed to the high-risk, harmful toxins, high-intensity flames and life-threatening situations that forest firefighters face. What’s more, they work to literal exhaustion for endless hours daily in remote locations under unbearably difficult conditions for months at a stretch with little to no time off.
An article by The Daily Press of September 12, 2023, quoted OPSEU Vice President and fire crew leader Noah Freedman’s description of the job, saying, “We can work 19 days in a row for 16 hours a day, inhaling carcinogens, sleeping in our own filth and away from our families.”
On October 13, Global News reported that in 2015, the Ontario government created a task force that was to investigate why MNRF has such problems recruiting and retaining wildfire fighters. In 2016, the released report warned the MNRF that something must be done to address the issue. Global News stated they, “viewed 2016, 2018 and 2019 editions of fire ranger retention reports. Each followed the same issues, raising them again and again. A memo sent to firefighters in July 2022 suggests the issue persists.”
In May of this year, during a Question Period, I asked the Natural Resources and Forestry Minister if he would commit to reclassifying wildfire fighters and improving their wages to resolve the crisis. In response to both the original and supplementary questions, Minister Smith totally skirted the issue, instead choosing to praise the exceptional performance of the Ford government in protecting our forestry resources. You can see this video under “Hey Minister, let’s do more than just celebrate conservation officers and Fire Rangers” on my Facebook page.
Ontarians should feel confident that the province has the finest and most experienced professionals available, especially in leadership or supervisory roles. But such is not the case with our forest fire management program. About 40 percent of the workforce must be replaced each year with new, untrained recruits. The above-mentioned 2016 report noted a worrisome trend in firefighter experience. While training and education are good, we all know there is no substitute for experience. Global News reported, “69 percent of Ontario fire ranger crew members — the most junior position who make up the bulk of front-line firefighting resources — had one year of experience or less.”
Kevin Wallingford is a fire ranger based in Timmins District. In the October 13, 2023, edition of Elliot Lake Today, Wallingford said, “Without having as many experienced people, it’s definitely a lot riskier. The dangers are higher. ’Cause we have people who haven’t necessarily seen high-intensity flames, and they’re out there making decisions that put people’s lives at risk and using multi-million dollar equipment, and these are people who haven’t had the experience to necessarily know what they can handle,”
Above, I indicated that governments are responsible for being both reactive and proactive in all matters of managing the province. Yet, how many years have successive governments turned their backs on addressing this issue? Let there be no doubt; this issue includes responsibility for not only the loss of many millions of dollars in resources and fire damage but also the genuine loss of life.
In 2021, Ontario set a single-year record with 793,000 hectares of burned forestland in the Northwest. There have been nearly 750 fires this summer compared to 268 in 2022, thanks to climate change. Unless we act now, things will only worsen. Ontario must make drastic improvements to our wildfire fighting and prevention program a top priority to resolve now, not down the road.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député