Despite being victims of Ontario's austerity agenda, forest firefighters in Ontario have stepped forward to help out in western Canada.
Toronto (15 July 2015) — More than 350 members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE), working in Aviation Forest Fire and Emergency Services for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), have been dispatched to western Canada to join the fight against the region’s record-breaking number of forest fires.
Working on the ground and in the air
The largest bloc of OPSEU/NUPGE members participating is made up of firefighting rangers. Their work includes installing ground sprinkler systems close to the communities most threatened by the raging forest fires.
Others work aboard “Bird Dog” planes that accompany helicopter water bombers on fire-extinguishing flights. The remainder have been assigned logistics work which involves preparing temporary sleeping quarters, meals and other logistical requirements.
Many workers helping since early May
The firefighters are deployed for 19 days, after which they return to their home bases in Ontario. Many have been deployed on several separate occasions, as the ministry has been sending personnel to assist in the firefighting operations since early May.
The OPSEU/NUPGE members have been deployed to the three prairie provinces, B.C., Northwest Territories, and the Yukon. They have joined thousands of other out-of-region emergency personnel from jurisdictions across North America to fight the blazes, which in many places have been burning out of control since early June.
Forest fires in Ontario have ebbed
According to Elaine Bagnall, chair of OPSEU/NUPGE Ministry Employee Relations Committee for the MNR, the province has responded to the emergency call during a season when forest fires in Ontario have ebbed. There are currently 56 forest fires burning in Ontario, of which only seven are being actively monitored.
The heaviest concentration of forest fires in Ontario is located in the far northwest corner of the province, close to the Manitoba border.
None of the fires burning in Ontario poses a risk to communities. By contrast, dozens of communities in western Canada and the Far North have been evacuated or have been put on evacuation alert.
Well-trained and dedicated personnel
“Our members have been extensively trained; they’re top notch in their field of work,” said Bagnall.
“They have voluntarily agreed to go out West to help in the firefighting effort. It was not mandatory that they take part but they’ve responded to the call.”
Workers have been victims of Ontario's austerity agenda
But for all their hard work and dedicated public service, OPSEU/NUPGE members working as seasonal fire fighters have been treated harshly by the government’s austerity agenda, said OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas.
“There was a time when our seasonal firefighters could find employment with the ministry during winter months, doing work like snow removal and debris clean up after storms,” said Thomas. “That’s not the case anymore. Now, when the firefighting season is over, they are forced to collect Employment Insurance. That’s the sort of ‘Thank You’ these professional and dedicated workers receive from their government and it’s wrong.”
Even so, Thomas paid tribute to the sacrifices made by members fighting fires outside the province.
“They represent the finest qualities found in public sector work,” he said. “They are making sacrifices to do this work far from home. By uprooting themselves to work elsewhere under dangerous conditions speaks to their commitment, professionalism and dedication to the public good.”
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 360,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE