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Recruitment, retention issues plague Ontario wildfire program

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Ontario struggles with recruitment, retention of wildland firefighters
WATCH ABOVE: 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

The summer of 2021 saw enormous, record-breaking fires rip through the forests of Northern Ontario.

A total of 1,198 forest fires razed over 790,000 hectares of land — the most ever burned in the Ontario’s history. One blaze, for example, was reported as a 200,000-hectare fire, among the largest recorded in the province.

Officials were forced to call in firefighters from the United States, Australia and Mexico. Thousands were evacuated from First Nation communities in the north.

The most recent fire season — 2022 — was much quieter than 2021.

But, even as climate change worsens and Ontario’s wildfire seasons threaten to lengthen and intensify, the provincial government is struggling to retain or train the men and women who fly into remote communities to battle the dangerous blazes.

It’s an issue Ontario has been tracking since at least 2015 — and one it continues to struggle with.

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“Working with a lot of guys who have a lot of experience, you see them leave every year,” Eric Davidson, a fire operations technician with Ontario’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Service (AFFES), told Global News.

“It got to the point where my coworkers and I are thrust into the supervisory role and you realize after a couple of busy seasons there are a lot shortfalls … when it comes to experience.”

Davidson, who has fought forest fires in Ontario for nine years, is the founder of the Ontario Professional Association of Wildland Firefighters. The group is advocating to improve pay and conditions for the forest firefighters.

“We’re looking at pay, contract length and job stability — or job-life balance,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Southern Ontario seeing one of the driest summers on record, while the north benefits from the wet'
Southern Ontario seeing one of the driest summers on record, while the north benefits from the wet

As far back as 2015, a government task force was formed to report on issues around retention, recruitment and experience for Ontario’s fire rangers.

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A 2016 report warned the province’s fire rangers were quitting at an alarming rate, were less experienced than in previous years and were comparatively underpaid.

Global News viewed 2016, 2018 and 2019 editions of fire ranger retention reports. Each followed the same issues, raising them again and again.

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A memo sent to firefighters in July 2022, suggests the issue persists.

“We have noticed both a decline in the number of people applying for positions across the Branch, and also seeing an increase in the number of people leaving our organization for employment opportunities elsewhere,” Chris Cuthbertson, director of AFFES, wrote on July 14.

The government does not dispute the assessment, admitting there are “challenges” finding experienced firefighters.

“Ontario is experiencing challenges with the availability of skilled and experienced candidates for wildland firefighter positions and the Ministry is exploring recruitment and retention strategies” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) said in a statement to Global News.

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While the 2022 fire season was quieter than 2021, federal climate change studies warn seasons will only grow longer.

The fire season could extend by as much as a month by 2100 as a result of climate change, a government document warned.

“The projected increase in spring and fall temperatures will have a strong influence on fire season start date, end date and length, particularly in areas subject to reductions in winter precipitation and earlier snowmelt,” Natural Resources Canada said.

The issue of pay and Bill 124

Wildland firefighters are deployed from bases in the northern reaches of the province to stand between the destruction of forest fires, key settlements and infrastructure.

A key concern raised in government reports is that fire rangers — who often spend the summer months isolated in remote parts of Northern Ontario and winter without full-time government work — are being underpaid.

“Compensation of FireRangers has not stayed current with the rates of inflation and private sector wages; being a FireRanger is no longer as good of a paying job as it used to be,” the report said.

A series of recommendations were published in the 2016 report to improve compensation and, as a result, retain more fire rangers. The report recommended rent-free housing for firefighters and argued the case for significantly raising firefighters’ wages.

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One graphic included in a report on retention completed for the provincial government in 2019 shows fire rangers have become comparatively less well paid, as other sectors and even the minimum wage has become more lucrative.

Pay for fire rangers has not increased at the rate of inflation or the minimum wage. Screenshot

Ontario firefighters — like nurses — are governed by Bill 124, legislation that capped wage increases for public sector workers to one per cent a year for three years.

Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives introduced the legislation in 2019 to limit compensation increases in public-sector contracts. The provisions were to be in effect for three years, and the Tories said in 2019 that it was a time-limited approach to helping eliminate the deficit.

The start date of the freeze depends on the period of collective bargaining. Ontario wildland firefighters, represented by OPSEU, signed their latest three-year collective agreement in January 2022; it is set to be governed by Bill 124’s one per cent cap.

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The Ontario NDP’s Labour Critic and Sudbury MPP Jamie West said removing Bill 124 would go some way toward helping with the issue.

“You have a situation where every industry is desperate for workers and so you have a situation where workers really are looking at their options,” he told Global News.

“I would remove Bill 124,” he added. “This is a job killing bill.”

Davidson said pay was the top issue for fire rangers.

“We’re falling behind every year, especially with inflation becoming an issue,” he said.

A 2015 survey found 18 per cent of crew members were concerned about pay and 23 per cent saw “limited career opportunities” in forest firefighting.

Click to play video: 'Smoke from northern Ontario wildfires prompt air quality warning'
Smoke from northern Ontario wildfires prompt air quality warning

With relatively low per-hour pay, overtime is relied upon by many to make summer fire ranger positions worthwhile. In quiet years, like this summer, that can leave fire rangers making tens of thousands less than they expected.

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“A lot of us come up here hoping to get somewhere around 200 to 300 hours of overtime,” Davidson said.

“It’s usually the difference between what you’re going to do for groceries or where you’re going to live in the winter. A lot of people rely on that — even nine years in, making $45,000 a year isn’t really enough to survive on if you’re not going out and working another job or if you’re in school or that sort of thing.”

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The province said “compensation is negotiated between Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the employer.”

A spokesperson for OPSEU told Global News the union was concerned Bill 124 was putting the safety of the province at risk.

“They perform extremely dangerous work, and the wage suppression these firefighters have experienced because of Bill 124 is making it even harder to retain and recruit in this sector,” the union spokesperson said.

“With such serious understaffing issues, there is a real concern that the province will be potentially underprepared to deal with future forest fires.”

Frustrations around work/life balance

The nature of forest firefighting means work-life balance leaves much to be desired, some say. Overtime can help to compensate, but it alone is not the answer.

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“In emergency services, you’re burning at both ends,” said Daniel Speckert, who has fought 11 fire seasons in Ontario and Australia over nine years.

“You are going to these fires, you are working long shifts and even when you’re off shift — you’re still on shift; you’re still getting calls, you’re still getting messages about fire, you’re still saturated in the environment. Like, we’re often sleeping in tents in the bush: there are no showers, you’re eating out of coolers.”

Depending on the schedule and the number of fires burning in Ontario, forest firefighters can spend weeks away from home.

“You could do 19 days on a fire line, and then go two days off and do another 19 days on a fire line,” Speckert said.

“That was 19 days that I never saw my family, that was 19 days that I haven’t been able to sleep in my own bed — there have been weddings and funerals. (Those are) times you haven’t had people to see you: grandma, your girlfriend, your loved ones or your kids.”

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In a survey of fire rangers conducted in 2015, 12 per cent said a better work/life balance would encourage them to pursue a long-term career as a forest firefighter.

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“Work/life balance is one of the main desirables for staff identified through numerous employee engagement surveys,” the 2016 retention report said. “Thus the belief is that the more the work/life balance is jeopardized due to the nature of operations, the harder it will be to retain employees.”

Growing inexperience on the front lines

The result of Ontario’s problems retaining forest firefighters is a growing inexperience on fire lines across the north every summer.

The first retention report — published in 2016 — found a “downward trend” in firefighter experience “due to high turnover levels” among front-line staff. This was compounded, the report found, by limited opportunities for “‘live fire’ training/mentoring” in quiet fire seasons.

In effect, those tasked with defending Ontario’s communities from uncontrolled wildfires were less experienced and stayed in the job for shorter periods than before.

“The experience levels have plummeted to a dangerous degree, I think,” Speckert said.

“There’s no replacement in emergency service for experience. There’s no video you can watch to tell you when a tree is going to fall or when the flank of a fire is going to start laterally spotting … you need to be there, you need to see that happen.”

The province noted experienced support crews were available to Ontario from the United States, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

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“Generally speaking, fire crew and overhead costs range from $600 per person per day to $993 per person per day which covers salaries, wages, overtime and benefits,” a spokesperson said. “This does not include other logistical costs such as transportation, lodging and meals.”

During the summer of 2015, the turnover rate for crew leaders was 38 per cent. It was 48 per cent for senior crew members.

“Due to the turnover of (forest fire) employees, we are stuck in a cycle of continuously reiterating basic training with a continued loss of overall practical experience to supplement that training,” the report published in 2016 warned.

The report found that 69 per cent of Ontario fire ranger crew members — the most junior position who make up the bulk of front-line firefighting resources — had one year of experience or less.

Speckert said his impression was the program had opted to take a “revolving door” approach to recruitment, where efficient training and a career steppingstone are used to fill vacancies.

“That doesn’t work in emergency services — you do not want people coming and working on significant natural disasters … where you don’t really know what you’re doing,” he said.

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Issues including pay and work/life balance have “propagated an environment where you get students who go ‘Yeah, it’s a great summer job,'” Speckert said.

That assessment is echoed — almost verbatim — in government reports.

“New FireRangers, who generally indicated they only heard about the program through word of mouth, are staying with the program for shorter durations, and are of a homogenous background, comprised primarily of students using (wildfire fighting) as transient summer work rather than as a career option,” the 2016 retention report’s stark assessment said.

The issue? While Ontario’s wildland firefighters are getting less experienced, the natural disasters they are dispatched to deal with could be intensifying.

“The experience level has absolutely dwindled, and the fires have only gotten worse,” Speckert said.

“But even if I they had stayed the same … the people in charge of them seem to have way different levels of experience, which I think is a recipe for disaster.”

A near-miss for wildland firefighters in Ontario

In July 2021, several Ontario firefighters were trapped by a forest fire in Red Lake, Ont., and came perilously close to tragedy.

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“There were no injuries during these events, however, there was a substantial loss of personal belongings,” an investigation into the entrapment and forced evacuations by the AFFES seen by Global News said. “There was high potential for catastrophic loss on this day.”

The report covered a 900-hectare fire with seven firefighting crews assigned. As the fire raged, firefighters were evacuated from the front line.

The investigation does not explicitly mention inexperience, instead laying out where key decisions went awry.

“The IC (incident commander) failed to respect or recognise the volatility of this fire and did not change his tactical plan from days prior which continued to be less effective than anticipated,” one line read.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia firefighters return from Ontario as forest fires stopped expanding'
Nova Scotia firefighters return from Ontario as forest fires stopped expanding

Investigators also found that, despite feeling unsafe, crew leaders on the ground did not feel able to share their concerns with leadership.

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“The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is ready to respond to wildland fires and other natural resource emergencies in Ontario,” the province said.

For some firefighters, like Speckert, close calls are a warning to leadership that something needs to change — and soon.

“Until this program decides it to be important enough to propagate that (supportive) environment, they will bleed through people,” he said. “And mark my friggin words, somebody is going to get severely hurt … it shouldn’t need to take crisis for things to change.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

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