Hundreds of OPSEU members across Ontario are fighting back against the scorching northern forest fires, and winning.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas thanked the firefighters for their bravery: “These courageous workers are true heroes. They are putting everything on the line to protect the province and keep us all safe.”
Firefighter Kevin Lanoix (Photo courtesy of firefighter, Kevin Lanoix)
Firefighters with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) are working around the clock. Their extraordinary work has saved lives and protected untold amounts of land.
Recent rainstorms have brought some relief to weary crews, but as of August 7, firefighters are still battling 43 fires including 14 that are not yet under control. There have been 971 forest fires in Ontario so far this year, compared an average of 567 per year over the past 10 years.
Northern communities have been choked with smoke and many residents have been forced to stay indoors or even leave their homes.
Owen Rigg is a Lands and Water Technical Specialist with the MNRF. He’s also President of Local 649 in South Porcupine, Timmins. “It’s really busy. Staff are working their butts off,” said Rigg.
“We’ve had severe lightning. Weather like that could easily start up new fires, because it’s so dry. It’s like a tinder box.”
Firefighter Kevin Lanoix with Crackers the dog (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lanoix)
Kevin Lanoix, is based in Cochrane, Ontario, and is experiencing his first year as a firefighter. He recalled leaving for his first ever fire, and shared a photo of that moment, taken with the husky dog, Crackers. “There were lots of huskies on the reserve at Peawanuck First Nation, up near Hudson Bay. I met the pup Crackers on the first day, and then each morning he would come and see us before we left for the fires,” said Lanoix.
“It’s been pretty great, and the people are awesome. I’ve flown in helicopters, water bombers, twin otters. I’ve seen helibuckets with hundreds of gallons of water drop in front of my eyes.
“Becoming a firefighter is a huge personal success for me.”
Lanoix is a student at Sault College in the Environmental Technology program, and a fires co-op student. He says he developed a passion for the job because of his dad. “When I was growing up, my dad would show me pics of the sweet memories he made when he used to fight fires. He still works in forestry. Now, when I return home to Timmins from a tour, we share stories.”
“I wake up in the morning, and think ‘wow! I really want to go to work today!’”
Back: Willem Verbeek; Middle: Lilly Miller, Alex Walsh, Emily Villeneuve; Front: Alex Mcgarry, Amelia Cosco
(Photo by Rogan Mei)
Emily Villeneuve is a crew boss with four years of experience as a firefighter. She said this fire season is the busiest she has ever had. “The work is very rewarding. We really get to contribute to the community.”
As a recent university graduate, Villeneuve said this has been a great summer job. “As a crew boss, I keep the crew knit together and make sure morale is up.”
Crew leader Alex Walsh works with Villeneuve, and said they have been on ten fires in the Timmins area in the last month. They are encouraged by the recent successes. Earlier this summer they received a report of a fire and were flown into the forest by helicopter, which was able to land in a nearby swamp. “We set up the pump, put down the hose and went in. We were able to extinguish the fire that same night.”
Walsh agrees with Villeneuve that this is the busiest fire season he has seen so far in Ontario.
Alex Walsh and Rogan Mei (Photo courtesy of Alex Walsh)
“It’s been different this year due to climate change,” said Walsh. “We are getting more and more extreme weather. Instead of rain we have downpours and sunny days are scorching hot. Fire season is also getting longer. It used to be from May to mid-September. Now it looks like the fires could last as late as November.”
“Thank you to the brave OPSEU members who have put their own lives at risk to keep us safe,” said Thomas. “Your sacrifice is extraordinary and makes Ontario a better place. You are surely leading by example in your courageous work. You are doing us all proud.”