Ontario faces crew shortages, aircraft issues in fight against wildfires

Click to play video: 'Ontario struggles with recruitment, retention of wildland firefighters'
Ontario struggles with recruitment, retention of wildland firefighters
RELATED: Poor pay and brutal working conditions are among the issues identified by government reports and staff when it comes to recruiting and training firefighters. Recruitment issues are reducing experience on the frontlines, potentially putting firefighters and northern communities in danger. Colin D’Mello reports – Oct 13, 2022

As the Ford government throws recruitment bonuses at its struggling forest fire program ahead of a potentially difficult season in the north, Global News can reveal one in five of its crews are unstaffed while several aircraft key to the province’s operations are weeks behind schedule.

Ontario’s fire season officially began on April 1, after a tough campaign across the country during the summer of 2023.

Opposition politicians and unionized forest firefighters have been critical of the Ford government’s management of the wildland fire program, which has struggled with recruitment and retention issues for years.

Ontario faces serious crew shortages

With the firefighting season now formally underway, Global News has learned that just 80 per cent of the province’s crews are staffed across the province.

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One base, Red Lake, has a vacancy rate of more than 50 per cent, while 70 per cent of crews are unstaffed at another in the north. Overall, just 143 of the 189 crews the province needs have been filled.

The low staffing levels come despite an attempt from the government to “attract, retain and recognize” forest firefighters with a $5,000 bonus. The money was framed as a one-off incentive by the province but labelled a “band-aid response” by the union that represents firefighters.

“Wildland firefighting staff work tirelessly under very difficult conditions to protect the health and safety of Ontarians, their property and our natural resources,” Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Graydon Smith said in late March.

“In addition to this incentive, we continue to explore longer-term strategies and solutions to support attraction and retention of critical jobs for future years.”

Front-line firefighters will be given up to $5,000 each to recognize their role, while other support staff represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) were set to receive $1,000.

Click to play video: 'Ford government faces heat over Ontario forest fires'
Ford government faces heat over Ontario forest fires

Confirmed recruitment numbers now the season is underway suggest the new money did little to boost the number of people signing up to fight fires.

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The issue is worst in northwestern Ontario, where 32 of the 100 crews needed to fight fire have been left unstaffed. In the northeast, 14 out of 89 crews have not been staffed.

“We have just over 630 fire crew positions filled, which is well within our recruitment range,” the government told Global News. “Hiring and onboarding will continue throughout April and May.”

Several people within the province’s wildland firefighting, who all spoke to Global News on condition of anonymity, fear understaffing will endanger those who do head out to fight fires this summer.

OPSEU has accused the government of having a “complete disregard for forest firefighters’ health and safety.”

The government also pointed to resource-sharing agreements it said can be used when things get tough.

“We also have mutual aid partnerships with municipalities, Indigenous communities, other Wildland Fire Management agencies across Canada and internationally,” a government statement read.

“These agreements provide additional personnel and equipment as needed to support wildfire response in Ontario. Additionally, up to 320 firefighting personnel may be available from private contractors.”

Waterbombers won't be able to fly every time they're needed

A lack of men and women to fight fires is not the only issue Ontario is facing this summer.

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Global News has also learned that only three of the amphibious aircraft used by the province to fight fire were ready on April 1, when the season officially began. At least two of the province’s fleet of nine CL415 planes won’t be ready to fly until sometime in June, well after the campaign has begun.

One of Ontario’s Twin Otter waterbombers won’t be able to fly at all this summer, according to Global News’ information, because its wing needs to be replaced.

A government spokesperson said three of its six Twin Otter planes would be available to fight fires this summer.

“It is typical for this fleet to go through an extensive maintenance period over the winter and spring months every year,” they said.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said she was worried the province simply isn’t ready.

“I am deeply concerned that we are not ready for forest fire season — and it looks like it’s going to be not a good one,” Stiles said.

“I’m very concerned that our firefighters are not going to be properly prepared or supported by this government.”

Stiles said the Ford government is “not properly equipping” firefighters.

Click to play video: 'Active forest fires rise in Ontario'
Active forest fires rise in Ontario

The government said the province has enough resources to meet its current needs.

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“Ontario ensures it has enough operational aircraft, like CL415 heavy waterbombers and helicopters, to fight fires based on the current threat level,” the government said in a statement.

“The fleet is well-maintained with planned upgrades for the next 25 years.”

Staffing issues are an issue for pilots and not just firefighters, with internal warnings that the government will not be able to get some of its waterbombers in the air every time there’s a request, even if it pushes pilots into overtime.

The government said it was “actively looking for pilots and engineers to fill some vacancy” but said it wouldn’t affect its ability to waterbomb fires.

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