Forest firefighters ignite change: secure presumptive WSIB coverage for high cancer risk


Toronto, ON – Ontario’s forest firefighters will soon have the same presumptive WSIB coverage that urban firefighters do. Like urban firefighters, forest firefighters are at a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and heart injuries, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While certain diagnoses for urban firefighters are presumed to be work related, forest firefighters didn’t have automatic recognition for WSIB.

“For years, forest firefighters have fought to be recognized and included in legislation which recognizes our sacrifice,” said OPSEU/SEFPO Local 703 Vice-President, Noah Freedman. “Without the relentless determination of forest fire workers from across the province of Ontario, we would not be receiving this news today. The fight is not over and there is still work to do to. But for all those who have sacrificed their health and their lives, and those who continue to, we can at least celebrate the promise of change. Now it’s up to this government to implement this change immediately.”

Experienced forest firefighters are leaving Ontario’s wildland firefighting program for higher paying jobs elsewhere. The insultingly low wage the Ontario government offers doesn’t reflect the high-risk nature of this job.  Forest firefighters spend 16-hour days, week after week isolated from loved ones, inhaling carcinogenic emissions to keep Ontario residents and communities safe.

The Ford government is patting themselves on the back for high recruitment numbers and their one-time retention bonus of $5000 that only goes to some forest firefighters. But as forest firefighters have been saying for years now, we need experienced workers to lead crews. In the past, crews had a combined experience of 100 years; now they have a combined experience of five years. Safety is developed through situational awareness – you learn the job by doing the job. But turnover is high because people are not adequately compensated for the dangerous nature of the job. This puts workers who choose to return at higher risk. It’s unacceptable.

Forest firefighters have been calling for reclassification – among other solutions to the retention crisis – for years. They’ve met with Minister Smith to raise their concerns, but this government has failed to take action.  Ontario was down 50 crews last year and the effects of that were felt all over the province with runaway fires and smoke blanketing our cities. The Ford government needs to act quickly before their inaction proves fatal.

“The WSIB coverage change is an important step to recognizing the dangerous work that forest firefighters do. But to ensure people of Ontario are not also unnecessarily exposed to smoke this coming summer, we urgently need to address the retention crisis in AFFES by increasing wages,” added Hornick. “This government’s own findings indicate that this year’s wildfire season is shaping up to be more dangerous than last year’s record-breaking season and yet the Ford government refuses to reclassify workers to address the crisis. They would rather gamble with our safety than pay forest firefighters a fair wage that reflects the risks they take.”