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Ontario short forest firefighters as over a dozen wildfires are reported, union says

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More than a dozen wildfires have been reported in Ontario and the union representing forest firefighters says their crews are still short about 25 per cent of their staff.

As of April 29, there have been 14 wildfires recorded in Ontario. This is in comparison to the two fires recorded at the same point last year.

“I think what we’re seeing is really an above normal fire activity in the spring months,” Gordon McBean, professor of geography and environment at Western University, told CTV News Toronto. “We’ve had a relatively warm winter."

The ten-year average of forest fires reported by April 29 in a year is 12.

Noah Freedman, vice president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 703 and a provincial forest fire crew leader, said the province is still missing about 25 per cent of its firefighting staff.

“Ontario is supposed to have 800 firefighters, which represents 200 fire crews,” Freedman told CTV News Toronto. “The more crews we have, the more incidents people can respond to at one time. It’s not uncommon in a bad fire season to have … 12 fires in one area when you wake up in the morning.”

“If you don’t have enough, you have to decide what burns and what doesn’t.”

A wildfire burns in a forest near the town of Cochrane, Ont., in a June 6, 2023, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

A spokesperson for the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Office says that 630 fire crew positions have been filled and said it was “well within” their recruitment range.

“Hiring and onboarding will continue throughout April and May,” Melissa Candelaria said in a statement.

Doubling of resources needed in 20 years: Union

The province has pledged to hire 100 permanent positions within the wildland fire program, however, it’s unclear what those recruits will be doing.

When asked by CTV News Toronto, the government said that “work is underway to finalize what this will look like for the program.”

“These positions will contribute to building leadership and experience within our wildland fire program by adding new year-round positions that will support career path opportunities for fire rangers and other staff.”

Officials say they are working to fill the positions as soon as possible, with hiring starting in the next few months.

“The increase in firefighting positions and incentives reflects our ongoing efforts to strengthen Ontario's wildfire program, rather than indicating specific expectations for this fire season,” Candelaria said.

“This is part of a series of changes the government has made to deliver more support for fire rangers and the northern communities that rely on them.”

The Progressive Conservatives have also offered up to $5,000 in retention incentives for front-line fire, aviation and critical support positions to support the 2024 fire season. However, Freedman says those incentives have become rather divisive, as not everyone is getting the full amount.

“What ended up happening was that they decided certain people were more valuable than others. Some people are getting a $5,000 bonus and others $1,000, and that’s created quite a bit of animosity among staff.”

In this file photo, a forest fire burns in northwestern Ontario. (Twitter/Ontario Forest Fires)

Freedman suggests that Ontario may need to double its firefighting resources in the next 20 years if the climate trajectory continues as it is.

“If anything happens, we aren’t ready,” he said.

McBean noted that fires and climate from previous years can have an impact on an upcoming wildfire season.

“Although 2023 was the warmest year on record, the general sense is that 2024 could be at least as warm, if not warmer, again.”

Earlier this month Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan warned that Ontario, as well as Alberta and British Columbia, could see a lengthier and "explosive" wildfire season.

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