More than 350 OPSEU members working in Aviation Forest Fire Emergency Services for the Ministry of Natural Resources have been dispatched to western Canada to join the fight against the region’s record-breaking number of forest fires.
The largest bloc of OPSEU members on the ground are fire-fighting rangers. Their work includes installing ground sprinkler systems close to the communities most threatened by the raging forest fires. Others work aboard “bird dog” planes which accompany helicopter water bombers on fire-extinguishing flights. The remainder have been assigned logistics work which involves preparing temporary sleeping quarters, meals and other logistical requirements.
The fire-fighters are deployed for 19 days after which they return to their home bases in Ontario. Many have been deployed on several separate occasions as the ministry has been sending personnel to assist in the fire-fighting operations since early May. The OPSEU members have been deployed to the three prairie provinces, B.C. Northwest Territory, and the Yukon. They have joined thousands of other out-of-region emergency personnel from jurisdictions across North America to fight the blazes which in many places have been burning out of control since early June.
According to Elaine Bagnall, chair of the MNR MERC team, the province has responded to the emergency call during a season when forest fires in Ontario have ebbed. There are currently 56 forest fires burning in Ontario of which only seven are being actively monitored.
The heaviest concentration of forest fires in Ontario is located in the far northwest corner of the province close the Manitoba border.
None of the fires burning in Ontario pose a risk to communities. By contrast, dozens of communities in western Canada and the far north have been evacuated or have been put on evacuation alert.
“Our members have been extensively trained; they’re top notch in their field of work,” said Bagnall. “They have voluntarily agreed to go out west to help in the fire-fighting effort. It was not mandatory that they take part but they’ve responded to the call.”
But for all their hard work and dedicated public service, OPSEU members working as seasonal fire fighters have been treated harshly by the government’s austerity agenda, said OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas.
“There was a time when our seasonal fire fighters could find employment with the ministry during winter months, doing work like snow removal and debris clean-up after storms,” said Thomas. “That’s not the case anymore. Now, when the fire-fighting season is over they are forced to collect Employment Insurance. That’s the sort of ‘Thank You’ these professional and dedicated workers receive from their government and it’s wrong.”
Even so, Thomas paid tribute to the sacrifices made by members fighting fires outside the province.
“They represent the finest qualities found in public sector work,” he said. “They are making sacrifices to do this work far from home. By uprooting themselves to work elsewhere under dangerous conditions speaks to their commitment, professionalism and dedication to the public good.”