Ontario’s new $20.5M for wildfire management falls short: firefighters
October 18, 2023
By Julian Orlando Chaves, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Firefighters expressed concerns after the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry announced new investments for fire management. Government efforts fell short of addressing main issues, fire staff say.
Parry Sound-Muskoka MPP Graydon Smith, who is also minister of Natural Resources and Forestry for the Ontario government, announced Thursday an additional $20.5 million in wildland fire management.
“As the demands on our resources increase, it is imperative that Ontario continues to look at ways to strengthen our firefighting efforts to remain an internationally recognized leader in wildland fire management,” said Smith in a news release.
According to the release, this money is going toward the following purposes:
• Investing in new aerial fire suppression technologies, including drones
• Building capacity to support Indigenous wildland fire management and community resilience
• Strengthening Ontario’s FireRanger workforce by recruiting new staff, enhancing skills development and promoting and maintaining safety
• Investing in science and risk assessment, including entering into collaborative research agreements with universities and other institutions to better understand the evolving science behind wildland fire management.
Is that enough?
Noah Freedman, vice-president of OPSEU 703 Local and a fire crew leader at Sioux Lookout, said it is not.
“We need to consider that it’s $20.5 million to be used over the next three years. And it doesn’t actually address anything that we, as fire workers, spoke to the minister (about) back in August,” he said.
Freedman said firefighters told Smith they were struggling to retain experienced staff, not recruiting more.
“Ten years ago, many more people applied for the job, but we’re not struggling to bring anyone into the position. At a minimum, we must retain people with over 10 years of experience to safely and adequately protect Ontarians,” he said.
“Staff leave when they feel how broken their backs and lungs are, look at their bank account, and ask, ‘Why did I do this?’ ”
On the other hand, the reclassification of job positions hasn’t been considered, says Freedman.
“For example, I am a fire crew leader. I lead fire crews into forest fires and will be cruising safely to put out those fires and protect communities. Nevertheless, I am called a resource technician,” he said.
“We just want the minister to agree to change our job titles to things like ‘forest firefighters’ so that we can be recognized for cancerous smoke inhalation and for being away from our families.”
While Freedman says there are loose ends, he values the government investing money in research to understand wildland fire management better.
According to the news release issued by the ministry, the province is looking at ways to address these claims.
“Ontario is also addressing financial barriers to recruitment and retention by reimbursing eligible FireRangers for expenses related to training and reviewing collective agreement entitlements, including standby and on-call pay,” the release reads.
The government also announced that it is developing a psychological safety program to protect the overall psychological well-being of staff working in the wildland fire program.
Julian Orlando Chaves is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for the Huntsville Forester.
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