The forest fire season is beginning to heat up in Ontario, but staffing concerns within the ministry’s fire program started scorching long before the warmer temperatures began to roll in this year.
The Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) program, a branch of the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) that protects communities and wildlands from fire outbreaks, is facing a staffing crisis, according to the union that represents their workers.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) says their members describe a toxic workplace environment that has led many experienced fire rangers and other members to quit the program, while leaving current employees afraid to speak up because of monitoring and discipline threats from the employer.
In a written statement to SooToday, OPSEU communications supervisor Kim Johnston says “the concerns our members and retirees have flagged are very real.”
The union says the wildland fire service is facing a staffing shortage that has left the province down around 50 crews – or 30 per cent of the entire program. Those numbers amount to approximately 200 fire ranger positions left empty, which is double the shortage of manpower from last year.
OPSEU estimates most remaining crews now have a combined experience of less than 10 years when there was a time it had been considered normal for many teams to have 50 years of combined practice.
Experienced members of the program who have reached out to SooToday also noted there’s an inadequate fleet of water bombers that would be prepared to take to the air. Some have suggested the readiness of those aircraft was sitting at less than 50 per cent earlier this month.
According to the union, the recurring theme for members leaving the program is a simple one: low wages.
“The Ford government is failing our fire services, and Ontario’s northern communities,” OPSEU's statement reads. “Like so many sectors across the OPS, fire rangers’ wages are behind industry standards and many jobs are misclassified. Bill 124 made the recruitment and retention crisis even more dire.”
“This work is extremely high-stakes — our members put their lives on the line to protect our communities. Unfortunately, many are leaving their jobs for better opportunities, and we’re losing all their years of experience too.”
“The Ford government is gambling with everyone’s safety.”
Reaching out to SooToday last year on the issue, former AFFES fire management technician Paige Molholland said she resigned from the program after 11 years because workers like herself were absorbing larger responsibilities while receiving the same pay as crew leaders that have fewer duties.
Making $28 an hour when she quit in April 2022, sometimes working upwards of 19 consecutive days for 12 to 16 hours at a time, she felt the work-life balance wasn’t compensated appropriately.
“They say there is a good work-life balance in this organization, yet I am not too sure where that is,” she said. “I have missed many family things like birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries for fire. I do understand that we are emergency services – and yet again we miss all these important events for a job that pays pennies.”
In email to SooToday, the MNRF did not specifically address the concerns surrounding wages. But spokesperson James Tinajero says the ministry is “actively preparing for the wildland fire season and is ready to respond to wildland fires and other natural resource emergencies in Ontario.”
MNRF’s statement continues to read: “Ontario, like other jurisdictions, is experiencing challenges with the availability of skilled and experienced candidates for wildland firefighter positions; therefore, the Ministry is exploring and implementing recruitment and retention strategies to ensure the province continues to have highly trained and capable wildland firefighters, operational staff, and support staff.”
“The ministry has hired a consultant specializing in recruitment and retention to work with Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) to identify short and long-term strategies," the statement continues. "The consultants are working directly with frontline wildland fire staff and ministry experts to develop actions that can be implemented for the 2023 fire season and beyond. AFFES also has a standing Recruitment and Retention Task Team who monitor trends and makes recommendations to improve recruitment and retention.”
OPSEU, however, wants to see more immediate action that would bring in the staff they say is desperately needed to ensure the safety and protection of the province’s most vulnerable communities.
“Right now, the government is gambling with the safety of everyone involved, instead of focusing on tangible solutions — like professionalizing the sector by hiring more full-time, year-round workers and paying them industry standard wages, whether they’re fire rangers, pilots, engineers or the many other classifications that make up our AFFES team.”
“The entire forest fire fighting system depends on a whole range of skilled workers on ground crews, air crews and in logistics. But, this system has been breaking down for years. It’s time to listen to those on the frontlines, not silence and ignore them.”
Locally, the first wildland fire for the area around the Sault was confirmed on May 15: a 1.5-hectare blaze that occurred in the Searchmont and Ranger Lake area north of the city.
That fire has since been put out, but a pair of blazes in the Wawa area — 105 and 359 hectares in size, respectively — are currently burning and are not yet under control. They’re among seven active fires confirmed in the northeast region as of Sunday evening, with many more blazes expected to follow in the coming weeks.
The MNRF assures the public that between their partnerships inside and outside of Canada, the program will be ready to tackle this year’s wildland fire season in alignment with “the appropriate Ontario government procurement processes.”
“As with any other fire season, we have mutual aid partnerships set up in Ontario to assist and support when resource levels are challenged,” their statement reads. “Partnerships include municipalities; Indigenous communities; other Wildland Fire Management agencies across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand; and contract crew services. These agreements can supply additional wildland firefighters, overhead fire management specialists, aircraft, and equipment as needed to support wildland fire response in Ontario.”
“Our response to wildland fires has been, and will continue to, evolve to keep people safe and protect our communities.”
OPSEU says the ongoing climate crisis means more years of record-high heat and destruction, and that the MNRF is up against a ticking clock.
“Even in a milder season, being down 50 crews would be extremely dangerous,” OPSEU’s statement reads. “But the climate crisis is changing that reality. With experts projecting record-breaking heat in the year ahead, it’s time to fix the crisis before it’s too late; before lives and property are destroyed unnecessarily, and decisions about which fires to prioritize and where to focus resources become even higher stakes.”