Does Alberta have a wildland firefighter ‘retention problem?’

Click to play video: 'New Alberta Wildfire recruits prepare for fire season'
New Alberta Wildfire recruits prepare for fire season
Dozens of Alberta wildland firefighters-in-training took what they learned in the classroom out into the real world Monday, battling staged fires as the province prepares for what’s expected to be a challenging season ahead. Sarah Ryan reports – Apr 8, 2024

The wildland firefighters’ union says Alberta has an under-staffed and under-trained wildfire force due to a recruitment and retention problem.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says high turnover means wildland firefighters are leaving Alberta for similar jobs in B.C. or with Parks Canada, where they can make more money, and have more benefits and stability.

“The exodus has been pretty strong from Alberta to B.C. recently, as well as to Parks Canada,” said firefighter Charlie.

Charlie has been a wildland firefighter for nearly 10 years, the majority of which he worked for Alberta Wildfire. He recently moved to a different province. Global News has agreed not to identify him because he’s concerned about possible job repercussions. Charlie is a pseudonym.

“Alberta is described by many in the program as kind of a sinking ship… The shortfall of Alberta nowadays I would say it’s primarily… retention.”

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It’s not a new issue, he added.

“They like to toot their horn at the start of this season…about how they’re hiring 100 new firefighters or whatever the number is, but that’s irrelevant. Two guys with a ton of experience are far more useful than 20 guys with zero experience,” Charlie said.

Click to play video: 'Wildland firefighters’ union worried about 2024 season'
Wildland firefighters’ union worried about 2024 season

The AUPE says half of seasonal Alberta workers don’t return the next year. And that’s happening year after year, said one of the union’s regional vice presidents.

“We do know that about 50 per cent do not return,” James Gault said. “Minster Loewen will say there’s 800 to 1,000 people (hired by Alberta Wildfire), (but) there’s usually 400 to 500 that are wildland firefighters, and out of that, maybe 200 are returning.

“We do get quality candidates that come in. The problem is they have less and less experience because we’re not retaining,” Gault said. “The government is doing nothing to bring people back. And with that, we’re having less and less experience leading less and less experienced crews into these wildfires.”

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The AUPE launched a letter-writing campaign, urging Albertans to ask the province to make changes.

However, Todd Loewen from the ministry of forestry and parks, said May 15 the wildland firefighter recruitment and retention process “has been going good. This year, we had more — the applications coming in to fight wildfire have been greater than in the past.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta’s forestry minister ensures firefighter retention, preparedness better than 2023 amid wildfire season'
Alberta’s forestry minister ensures firefighter retention, preparedness better than 2023 amid wildfire season

In past years, Alberta has hired about 650 seasonal wildland firefighters, the ministry of forestry said. This year, it added funding for 100 more firefighters and five additional crews. For this season, the province said it has hired more than 850 seasonal wildland firefighters along with its fulltime Alberta Wildfire staff.


“Here in our province, you start off at about $22 to $23 an hour,” Gault said. “You have grids, so every year of experience, you move up a dollar figure… (but) when you’re doing a four-month fire season, it’ll take you three years to move up one level.”

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The province confirmed wildland firefighters’ wage is between $22.44 and $30.17 per hour “based on experience and position level per their collective bargaining agreement.” They are also eligible for overtime pay and receive free room and board for the season. As seasonal workers, they are not eligible for benefits, said Pam Davidson, press secretary for Forestry and Parks.

The wage for new firefighters in B.C. is 22.5 per cent higher and 33.4 per cent higher with Parks Canada, AUPE said.

“B.C. did make a decision last year to hire full-time wildland firefighters. They do offer better pay,” Gault explained. “It’s not just about pay,” he stressed. “It’s the retention. You want people to come here and you want them to stay. That’s not happening here.

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“You come here, you get the experience — Alberta taxpayers pay to train them — but then they go somewhere where they have benefits, they have coverage, they feel like they’re more respected and looked after by their employer.”

Click to play video: 'Volunteer firefighter in coma after wildfire injury in northern Alberta'
Volunteer firefighter in coma after wildfire injury in northern Alberta

Alberta wildland firefighters don’t receive other benefits, the union said, like health coverage or pensions. Ontario provides presumptive cancer coverage for its wildland firefighters, Gault explained.

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Charlie points out it’s hard to compare based on wage alone.

“They definitely pay the least but … Alberta is the only one that provides food and housing. It’s not housing; you’re living in a camp kind of thing, but they’re also feeding you.”

But Charlie doesn’t think the wage has changed significantly in more than 10 years.

“That, to me, is the absurd part.”

Contract length

This year, Alberta declared the official start of wildfire season on Feb. 20, 10 days earlier than its usual start date of March 1.

Despite that, the contracts for seasonal wildland firefighters don’t begin until May, both Charlie and Gault said.

“Here, wildfire season starts March 1 and goes to the end of October,” the union rep said. “But this year we started it even earlier, we started in February. Every year, the fire season starts earlier and goes longer, that has been a trend for the last couple of years, but we’re not fully hired until May 15.”

That limited contract is not only a problem for wildfire coverage, Gault said, but for retention.

“At the end of a three-month term, they can be let go at any time and we can bring on other people. That is an issue,” he explained. “You want to make an income. You want to make a living.”

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And, firefighters essentially have to reapply ahead of every season, Gault said, which is not the case in all jurisdictions.

“In Alberta, we don’t have recall rights… The province puts an expression of interest out when you’re leaving to ask if you want to come back… but there’s no guarantee that they will bring you back.”

The forestry ministry said it did not have the average number of years of experience for those hired this season but Davidson said “Alberta’s government works hard to keep experienced personnel in the province. And this year, we were happy to send out letters of intent to qualified firefighters early.”

Click to play video: 'AUPE calls on winner of Alberta election to rollback firefighter cuts'
AUPE calls on winner of Alberta election to rollback firefighter cuts

The contract length in Alberta is one of the biggest issues, Charlie agrees.

“It’s just insane that they think they can start people on May 10 or 15, and then cut them Aug. 15 or 20… Not even a student can make that work. Even a student wants to work more weeks than that.”

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And it’s certainly not a selling factor for those hoping to do this work long-term, he said.

“How are you supposed to make a three-month job tenable for a career?”


During an Alberta wildfire update on May 15, Loewen said new and returning wildland firefighters are trained at the Hinton Training Centre.

“We make sure that they’re trained for the job that they’re required to do, whether it’s in a management position or whether it’s one of the ones just fighting the fire on the fire line.”

He said firefighters want to work in Alberta and crews have already been successful this wildfire season.

“We have well over 300 fires that our teams have extinguished this year, and I think we’re in a really good position as far as moving into the season. Being prepared and having the crews doesn’t mean we’re not going to have wildfires. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have evacuations. It doesn’t mean we’re not to have some of those natural things that happen every year anyways,” Loewen said.

“But we’re in a better position than we were last year. We hired additional staff and additional firefighters on the ground and those people are doing the job that Albertans expect.”

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Premier Danielle Smith added that other provinces and territories have already offered to help if Alberta needs additional support. Alberta can also access the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, she said.

On April 8, while highlighting the training done at the centre in Hinton, Alberta Wildfire said about 50 per cent of its staff were returning workers while 50 per cent – about 400 – were new.

Click to play video: '‘We are helping ourselves’: Alberta rancher, union raise concerns about wildfire resources'
‘We are helping ourselves’: Alberta rancher, union raise concerns about wildfire resources

Gault said a lot of students in programs related to fire, forestry, agriculture and environment end up working as seasonal wildland firefighters.

“In general, we want them to have some type of wildland certification, they’ve gone to some type of education, even a one-year education,” he said. “There’s a physical test that you have to pass. There is education. There are forestry courses they take.

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“It can turn into 10 days to two weeks for training. Then a lot of our wildland firefighters will take other course – chainsaw, various other courses that they learn as they go – and you do learn while you’re on the job.”

Charlie recalls between eight and 10 days of training.

The forestry press secretary said Alberta’s wildland firefighters receive “64 days of dedicated training and on-the-job coaching.” She did not distinguish how many days are training and how many are on-the-job coaching. Global News has asked for clarification.

Davidson said training includes occupational health and safety, fire line safety, fire behaviour, strategy and tactics, helicopter operations, safe chainsaw use and incident command.

But Charlie says real-life fire experience often isn’t considered the main factor in career advancement.

“Alberta makes it difficult to pursue a career in wildfire and it makes it difficult to want to pursue a career in wildfire. Three-month contract lengths are one thing. They put very little weight, if any, on fire experience as far as moving up the ladder, whereas a two-year forestry program at a college and zero fire experience can make you a superior rank to an experienced fire crew leader.”

Employer relations

Gault thinks the biggest thing Alberta Wildfire could do to improve retention would be to make sure employees felt respected.

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“They feel expendable. They are zero hours, meaning they could be let go at any time. There is no security and now with night vision you have new people … who are now going to be fighting fires at night,” he said.

“We’ve been lucky with the rain, we’ve been lucky with the cooler weather. This has given the government an opportunity to train and to give these people a little more experience but we don’t know what the future is going to hold.”

Charlie agrees. He says many people who work seasonally with Alberta Wildfire feel like they’re treated as “second class and expendable,” shown through “the absurdly short contract lengths, requirement to reapply each year and willingness to add hundreds of new recruits proceeding busy fire seasons to replace dozens of experienced firefighters leaving for greener pastures.

“All the while, (they’re) throwing money away on tanker drops and idle helicopters simply so they can’t be ‘taken’ by B.C. Both of these aircraft types would be required less if there were more experienced firefighters and experience crew leaders on the ground.”

Click to play video: '2024 Alberta wildfire season starts early'
2024 Alberta wildfire season starts early

Since Jan. 1, there have been 357 wildfires in the forest protection area, burning a total of 29,000 hectares — about 290 square kilometres. None are currently out of control. Three are classified as being held, nine are under control, three have been turned over and 342 are extinguished.

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By May 22 last year, 945,000 hectares – 9,450 square kilometres — had burned, making 2023 the most active spring for wildfires on record, surpassing 615,000 in 2019.

Albertans interested in signing up to help fight fires in their area are being invited to do so this season by completing a form on the province’s website. The volunteers must undergo safety training. The province is especially interested in residents experienced with using heavy machinery.

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