OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas has extended heartfelt condolences to the community and families of the victims of a flash fire that took the lives of 19 brave firefighters in the state of Arizona on June 30.
"On behalf of OPSEU's 130,000 members, many of whom serve as first responders and some as firefighters within the Ministry of Natural Resources, I am saddened by your loss and feel your pain," Thomas said. "These are dangerous jobs and the people who perform them are selfless and dedicated. They are heroes, pure and simple."
Sparked by lightning, the blaze took the lives of all but one of an elite 20 member crew as they attempted to take cover. According to reports, U.S. President Barack Obama was quoted as saying, "This will change the way governments deal with increasingly destructive wildfires."
"No doubt climate change is the wild card in the propensity and severity of wild fires," Thomas said. "Every day, OPSEU members put their lives on the line protecting our at-risk communities. Yet until tragedy strikes these workers appear as an afterthought," Thomas offered.
Here in Ontario, seasonal firefighters in the north face the same risks and challenges. However, recent changes to Canada's Employment Insurance Act have put a financial strain on these workers.
"The Harper government's recent changes to EI have many of these brave men and women wondering why governments don't seem to appreciate their work and bravery," Thomas said. "Fighting wild fires may be seasonal work, but it isn't part-time work."
Recent amendments disqualify these workers from receiving employment insurance benefits in the winter months, and this has led to some reconsidering their career path. "It's tough to support a family with no money coming in," said Len Sedore, president of OPSEU Local 623. "At the same time it's tough to blame potential employers who resist hiring you in the down months knowing that you will be leaving when fire season resumes. Still, this is our passion. It's what we live to do."
Thomas summed up, "President Obama is right. Governments have to change the way we deal with wildfires and the people who keep us safe. I normally wouldn't politicize such a tragedy, but if this loss doesn't inspire change then we have abandoned the victim's legacies and risk sacrificing the future of the brave men and women who continue to serve so that we remain safe. Heroes' work is full-time work. Let's recognize that in real time, not just in ceremony."
Warren (Smokey) Thomas 613-329-1931