Firefighters raising alarm over province’s wildfire response

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Firefighters raising alarm over province’s wildfire response
While the Alberta government claims it’s ready for wildfire season, wildland firefighters are raising concerns. As Erik Bay reports, problems with pay, recruitment and management dysfunction has the province playing with fire and the season is just getting started – Jun 4, 2021

Alberta wildland firefighters are sounding alarm bells this wildfire season.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees vice-president Mike Dempsey says Alberta’s wildland firefighters are missing paycheques as the province works out issues with its new 1GX pay system.

“We have folks who have started a month to a month and a half ago who haven’t got a single paycheque yet,” Dempsey said. “We’ve got members — and we’re talking hundreds here — who’ve been getting incorrect amounts of pay.”

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1GX replaced the Government of Alberta’s previous business support system, which was over 20 years old. In a statement to Global News, Service Alberta director of communications Graeme McElheran admitted there have been some challenges with the system change.

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“Service Alberta is aware of concerns related to firefighters, including seasonal hires, being paid on time and accurately,” McElheran said.

“We are taking action to resolve these issues. Everyone will be paid accurately.”

Click to play video: 'Three wildfires, heavy winds leave damage in southern Alberta'
Three wildfires, heavy winds leave damage in southern Alberta

But Dempsey says firefighters can’t wait.

“We can’t have people literally putting their life on the line — literally — and dismissing them, ‘Oh we’ll get around to paying you whenever we fix the system,'” Dempsey said.

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Dempsey also alleges seasonal employment letters were sent to potential workers less than a month before their proposed start date, causing high seasonal crew member turnover.

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It’s a claim the press secretary for the minister of Agriculture and Forestry calls “untrue.”

“It’s unfortunate a union organization purposely tries to spread misinformation,” Justin Laurence said in a statement. “Alberta Wildfire hired 432 seasonal crew members this year with an 11.6 per cent turnover rate, well below the average of approximately 25 per cent.”

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More people getting outdoors has Alberta wildfire officials on alert

Dempsey says the turnover rate among wildland firefighters is closer to 50 per cent.

“Because the job offers came so late, many of (the firefighters) got jobs in British Columbia or the provincial parks,” Dempsey said. “Half of all those workers and seasonal workers that are hired of those many hundreds aren’t coming back.

“We’re really getting a bad rep throughout western Canada for how we treat our seasonal folks and especially those who work in the fire game.”

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The conditions are leaving the province unprepared for fire season, says Dempsey.

“There’s a lot of nervousness out there, with this fire season that’s coming on.”

According to local officials, fire season is off to a dry start this year.

“The moisture content in all the fuels that are on the ground is in the extreme level, so meaning everything is quite dry,” Coaldale deputy fire chief of operations Clayton Rutberg said.

“That bumps our fire risk up quite a bit this time of the year when we start to get that high heat, lower humidity and things get nice and crisp and dry.”

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How COVID-19 changed Alberta fire bases

Rutberg reminds anyone having uncontained fires to get a burn permit and to be fire safe.

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“If they are using a fire pit… have a way to extinguish the fire pit and make sure they keep it to a reasonable size.”

As of Friday, several fire advisories and warnings were in effect across Alberta.

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