Canadian soldiers and hundreds of firefighters from other countries have joined the fight amid a staffing crunch and recruitment challenges for their ranks.
Months before the wildfire season started, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CFAC) had warned of diminishing numbers of both career and volunteer firefighters across the country.
With the current wildfire season projections signalling some challenging months ahead with a higher-than-normal fire activity, more resources are needed now, said Ken McMullen, CFAC president.
“There’s definitely a shortfall. There’s no doubt about it,” he told Global News in an interview.
As of June 8, 427 active wildfires were burning in Canada with 232 out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre
So far this year, 2,391 wildfires have torched 4.4 million hectares of land.
The sheer volume of fires burning in multiple provinces over an extended period of time is putting increased mental and physical strain on firefighters — the majority of whom are volunteers, said McMullen.
The high reliance on volunteer firefighters is “just not sustainable,” he warned.
“We’re starting to see that lack of sustainability in these long, drawn-out events similar to what we’re seeing right now,” added McMullen.
“Unfortunately, the reality is we may see individuals walk away from their volunteer position after they’ve been on such a prolonged event similar to this one.”
How to become a volunteer firefighter
The specific qualifications required to become a volunteer firefighter vary by province and territory, but there are some basic requirements for the job.
To start off, you must be at least 18 years of age, hold a valid driver’s licence and live in and/or work in the response area.
Interested candidates should also be physically able to perform various firefighting tasks. People who have a criminal record related to firefighter duties cannot volunteer.
Volunteer firefighters are also expected to train a certain number of hours per month, according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Canadian Volunteer Fire Service Association.
“You will need to acquire both firefighting skills and attain a certain level of physical fitness that will allow you to do the job,” CAFC and CVFSA state in their information toolkit.
Their duties include but are not limited to suppressing fires, protecting residents, providing pre-hospital care to victims and educating the public.
Volunteer firefighters play a critical role in any wildfire season emergency, giving a much-needed helping hand to permanent staff who have years of training and expertise.
But the number of volunteers has declined nationally in recent years as have numbers for those working full-time.
Last year, there were roughly 90,000 people who volunteered, making up 70 per cent of the total firefighting workforce, CAFC’s census report for 2022 showed. That was an almost 10 per cent decrease from a year before.
In 2016, there were 126,000 volunteer firefighters. That was the same year the ferocious Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire caused mass destruction and evacuation in the western province.
Why is there is a shortage of firefighters?
McMullen said the reduction of so many firefighters within a short period of time is “alarming.”
Because volunteers already have full-time jobs, striking the balance between their firefighting responsibilities and regular work can be “extremely challenging,” said Mike Carter, 6th district vice president at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
“When you’re going out to a wildfire, it’s a very unknown, unpredictable situation and it’s not something that we do on a regular basis as firefighters,” Carter, who is an active firefighter in Calgary, told Global News.
“So, making sure that they’re properly trained is critical and they have the right resources and equipment to ensure they can set up those parameters to protect those homes.”
Municipal fire departments are running into recruitment challenges because more than 40 per cent have had to defer training and new equipment amid financial constraints, according to a CAFC survey that was released in December 2022.
Age may be a contributing factor, McMullen said, since many municipalities have an age limit of 60 years for active front-line firefighters given the physical health risks the job entails.
Last year, the number of people above the age 50 made up 25 per cent of the firefighting workforce.
Meanwhile, younger Canadians are less inclined to volunteer, McMullen said.
“We’re having difficulties recruiting the younger population to volunteer the same way that their parents or grandparents did in our communities.”
Since it’s voluntary work, there is no pay but people may be entitled to stipends, reimbursements and a federal tax credit for their services.
McMullen says Ottawa needs to increase the tax incentive for volunteer firefighters – currently at $3,000 annually, to $10,000 – and reinvest in the joint emergency preparedness plan to help attract new recruits.
“We need to invest today to ensure that we don’t run into these same situations in the years to come.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured Canadians this week the country is expected to have “enough resources to cover the summer,” but the government is developing contingency plans “if things get worse,” he said during a June 5 news conference.
For this season, Ottawa is hiring and training more than 300 Indigenous firefighters and 125 Indigenous fire guardians.
Six provinces and territories have been able to procure specialized firefighting equipment through federal funding, the government said in a June 5 release.
In addition, Natural Resources Canada, in collaboration with the International Association of Fire Fighters has also started a one-year pilot training program to prepare structural firefighters to respond to the dangers of interface fires that threaten homes, communities and infrastructure.
“It’s going to have extremely good dividends for protecting our communities, the people that live there, protecting their homes and making sure that our firefighters are kept safe,” said Carter of the pilot program.
— with files from Global News’ Jillian Piper