OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas is paying tribute to the dedication and bravery of the hundreds of OPSEU members who are fighting back forest fires ravaging northern Ontario.
“These are true heroes,” says Thomas. “Their bravery makes us all proud.”
As of July 17, OPSEU members working for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) are battling 53 fires including 21 that are not yet under control. There have been 683 forest fires in Ontario so far this year, compared to 170 in 2017. Northern communities have been choked with smoke and many residents have been forced to stay indoors or even evacuate their homes.
Meanwhile support has been pouring in from across the country, with crews called in from Nova Scotia and PEI to Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
Richard Solomon is a firefighter in Cochrane Ontario, and has just returned from two weeks at the camp for a well-deserved two-day break from the fires. He says they have still had no rain, and are battling two fires over about 100 hectares, plus another large fire further north.
“We work four per crew,” says Solomon. “We go where the fires are, and where we are needed – out to North Bay, Sudbury, then back to Cochrane. The new people team up with the seasoned firefighters and we help each other out.”
Solomon says what really stays with him is the way the fires can change direction without warning. “Everything switches with the wind. It just takes you by surprise, and you never know.”
“We knock down the fire by putting water all around it, and then start working inside the fire ASAP so it doesn’t jump above the water. But the wind can come out of nowhere.”
“Safety is number one. We all work together’” says Len Sedore, Local President of OPSEU Local 623, and an IT worker with the MNRF. Sedore is part of a close-knit team in the Sudbury area, including firefighters as well as engineers, pilots, and warehouse and administrative staff.
This crew has been working 19 days in a row, with only a two day break to recuperate in between.
“All hands are on deck, and we are working flat out,” says Sedore. “Helicopters and water-bombers are doing missions all day long. We are working around the clock bringing clothes, food and resources to the firefighters out in the field.”
The firefighters are living in forest camps in tents, far from their families. The forests are infested with bugs, and the smoke is inescapable.
“We are looking after safety, and looking after Ontario. It’s in our blood,” says Sedore.
“The bravery and commitment of these OPSEU members is extraordinary,” said Thomas. “They are putting their own lives and safety at risk, so that our communities are safe from the dangerous flames and smoke. We owe each and every one of them a tremendous debt of gratitude. I could not be more proud of our members on the front lines as they continue to face down the fires and protect our province.”
For more information: OPSEU President, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, 613-329-1931