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OPSEU calls for action on forest firefighter 'crisis'

A firefighter and union spokesperson in Northwestern Ontario accuses the government of failing to acknowledge the lack of experienced fire rangers.
Noah Freedman is vice-president of OPSEU local 703 and a ninth-year forest fire crew leader (submitted photo)

THUNDER BAY — The union representing forest firefighters in Ontario says the province's aviation, forest fires and emergency services branch is inadequately prepared for the 2024 fire season.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union alleges that AFFES has "a retention crisis" in which there are almost no experienced staff left in the program.

"This is evident in the fact that Ontario was short roughly 12 per cent of its crews in 2022, and 26 per cent in 2023," said Noah Freedman, vice-president of OPSEU local 703, and a ninth-year fire crew leader based in Sioux Lookout.

"The numbers are getting worse because, though we have no problem hiring young 18 and 19-year-olds, the lack of experience means we have no one to lead those crews. The AFFES certainly doesn't want to acknowledge this."

Freedman said it was just good fortune that last summer turned out to be nothing like the record-setting fire season of 2021.

"We had some very close calls with some of our Far North Indigenous communities. But everything ended up working out for the most part. That is very much an aspect of luck rather than preparedness or skill."

He's concerned, he said, that the ministry of natural resources and forestry – the ministry that operates  AFFES – is currently downplaying the outlook for the 2024 fire season despite the low snowpack in the bush.

"As somebody who is on the ground at the front of these fires, I can tell you that it's something to worry about."

According to Freedman, AFFES is supposed to have 190 four-person fire crews, but in the last two seasons the crews have been expanded to five or six people.

"The reason for this is we are lacking experience. so we're trying to shove as many inexperienced 18, 19 and 20-year-olds underneath crew leaders. Now, granted, even most of the fire crews that we have, even with the minimal experience that we have, are not really prepared for what's coming."

He said the difficulty in retaining firefighters arises from a combination of factors, primarily that the job is demanding and requires a lot of time away from family. 

But compensation is also a big issue.

"It's been detrimental, and has been getting worse over the last 20 years, due to the fact that forest firefighters in Ontario are not recognized as firefighters. We are not classified as firefighters, which means we're not paid appropriately."

In 2022, in his seventh fire season, he earned $28,000 over six months of work, before taxes.

A spokesperson for the ministry of natural resources and forestry said the starting wage for fire rangers this year is $25.83/hr, an increase from $21/hr.

TBnewswatch asked the MNRF to respond to OPSEU's allegation that it isn't doing enough to get ready for this year's fire season, and that there is a lack of experienced firefighters.

The ministry did not provide a spokesperson for an interview but submitted the following statement from Melissa Candelaria, press secretary for MNRF Minister Graydon Smith:

"The ministry acknowledges the crucial work of our fire rangers and how essential their services are for the safety and well-being of Ontario residents. In terms of recruitment and retention . . . Ontario is implementing various measures, including initiatives like reimbursing tuition costs for recruits, providing financial assistance for safety boots, and expanding entitlements like stand-by pay and on-call benefits. Our government continues to make improvements and will ensure that fire rangers and fire crew leaders will return in 2024."

The statement added "It's important to highlight the experience and expertise of Ontario's fire rangers. Last year alone, 576 out of our 661 fire rangers supported other jurisdictions across Canada during the 2023 fire season. This demonstrates their expertise in firefighting and adaptability in different settings, proving their worth as seasoned professionals."

Information about how to apply for a forest firefighting position in Ontario is available online.


Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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