Ontario won’t have the staff for smooth, quick evacuations during forest fires and other emergencies if the Ministry of Natural Resources goes ahead with plans to close offices and lay off workers, says the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
“MNR has been underfunded and under-resourced since cuts started in the 1990s,” says OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “Now, the government wants another $50 million out of the budget. There is no place left to cut without putting people and services at risk. And that’s exactly what will happen if the Ministry serves Ontarians only from centres in large regions rather than smaller areas.”
Gogama is one such vulnerable office. Staffed with nine people, Gogama services an area between Sudbury and Timmins. Though not designated as fire response, some staff were called out to help evacuate the Westree area last week.
They were out again over the long weekend as fires raced toward highways in the area. Within 15 minutes of getting called in to work, Gogama staff were at the office to pick up equipment and hit the roads to evacuate people.
“We were close. We live in the area. We know the roads,” says Gail Ballak, a registered professional forester for more than 20 years and president of OPSEU Local 651. “We knew where people would be camping. We got to them quickly and got them out safely.”
Thomas says the government’s plan puts that kind of service in jeopardy.
“There’s no way we’ll get response time like that if the McGuinty government insists on centralizing services,” he says. “They can do that, and the bean counters will call it a success. But when there’s a forest fire or other emergency two or three hours drive from a regional office, response time will lag. And no question – that will be a failure.”
There are 42 active fires in Ontario and about 29,000 hectares burning, according to the MNR website. At 324, the number of fires to date this year is more than double last year’s 147 and nearly double the 10-year average.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas,
President of OPSEU