Forest firefighters call out Ford government’s disregard for their health and safety

Queen’s Park, Toronto – Veteran forest firefighter Noah Freedman and OPSEU/SEFPO President JP Hornick joined with NDP MPPs Lise Vaugeois, Guy Bourgouin, and Sol Mamakwa at Queen’s Park today to call out the Ford government for their complete disregard for forest firefighters’ health and safety and to demand action before the imminent start of the 2024 fire season.

“Like urban firefighters, forest firefighters are at a higher risk of cancer and heart disease than other workers. While certain diagnoses for urban firefighters are presumed to be work related, forest firefighters don’t have automatic recognition for WSIB. Instead, they must jump through hoops to prove a strong causal link between their exposure and diagnosis – all while managing a serious illness. It’s shameful,” said OPSEU/SEFPO President JP Hornick.

“The Ontario Government treats forest firefighters’ health as it does climate change, with a willful ignorance for scientific evidence,” added Noah Freedman, eight-year veteran forest firefighter and Vice-President of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 703. “The Health and Safety document we filed with the government, and their response, is proof that they have been negligent for years, expecting that no one was paying attention. Some of us are still here, we are all dying, and we will no longer be silenced.”

Last year’s wildfire season was record-breaking. Even those who weren’t close to an active fire felt the impacts. Forest firefighters spend 16-hour days, week after week, inhaling carcinogenic emissions to keep Ontario residents and communities safe.

Unfortunately, forest firefighters don’t receive proper health and safety training on the toxic conditions they are exposed to on the frontlines, despite repeated recommendations to the government, including from the Ministry of Natural Resources’ joint health and safety committee. Shockingly, forest firefighters are still advised to cover their mouths with dry cloths like bandanas – a method that was proven to be ineffective in the 1990s.

The Ford government has the power to fix this crisis and protect forest fire workers before the 2024 forest fire season starts. Forest firefighters risk it all for Ontarians and the Ford government must recognize them for the crucial work they do, and ensure they have all the protections they need.

“The government has had many opportunities to change the classification of forest firefighters so that they receive the same presumptive cancer coverage as other firefighters. Adding insult to the injuries that long-term forest firefighters are abandoned to live with, the MNRF makes workers pay out-of-pocket for training. But then refuses to train workers properly to protect themselves from inhaling carcinogens,” said NDP MPP for Thunder Bay – Superior North, Lise Vaugeois. “The contracts are short, poorly paid and guarantee that Ontario is not building the expertise needed to fight the ever-growing fires coming because of the climate crisis and this year’s very dry winter.”