Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fire ranger incentive great: mayor

By Carl Clutchey, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, The Chronicle-Journal   

Industry News News firefighter firefighters First Responders Ontario

Mar. 23, 2024, Thunder Bay, Ont. – As the threat of wildfires becomes increasingly top of mind in rural areas around Thunder Bay and across the North, the province took heat this week for failing to provide firefighters with compensation that reflects the risk of combating the danger.

And morale problems within the firefighting force persisted, even as Natural Resources and Forestry Minister (MNRF) Graydon Smith offered financial incentives of up to $5,000 for firefighters who toil on the front lines.

Smith, a Parry Sound-area MPP, gave a nod to firefighters, noting “they work tirelessly under very difficult conditions to protect the health and safety of Ontarians.”

“In addition to (the financial) incentive,” Smith said, “we continue to explore longer-term strategies and solutions to support attraction and retention of critical jobs for future years.”

The union representing Ontario’s fire rangers said it would take the incentives offer, but it also threw cold water on the amount, calling it “a drop in the bucket” and a “Band-Aid response.”

The incentives “will all be lump-sum payments that do not contribute to workers’ salaries or pensions,” the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said in a separate news release.

More than 1,000 wildland fire rangers and aviation crew members are eligible to receive the incentives, the ministry says.

Shuniah mayor and Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association president Wendy Landry applauded the ministry’s offer, calling it “a great incentive to have folks apply” to be fire rangers.

“Northwestern Ontario municipalities and the North as a whole are concerned about the potential of wildfires,” Landry said on Friday.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union called Smith’s announcement a publicity stunt “more concerned about suppressing criticism than protecting our air quality and human life.”

“The government has ignored wildfire workers’ recommendations to fix the (human resources) crisis, and instead, has scrambled to throw scraps at the crisis and the front-line workers who risk their lives,” the Ontario Public Service Employees Union said in its news release.

The new incentives are limited to “those in certain job classifications” and followed a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach by the province, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union claimed.

In previous years, the province has aimed to hire about 800 fire rangers spread over four-person crews, although that target is not always met.

An Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services spokesman said the department has yet to share how many rangers it plans to hire this season, but said recruitment continues.

“As a precaution, MNRF is planning for early spring fires by proactively bringing some fire rangers and support staff back early to address any potential needs arising from spring hazards,” the spokesman said.

Last year’s wildfire season in Ontario was one of the worst on record, burning more than 4,400 square kilometres — three times the 10-year average. Most of the 700 fires occurred in Northern Ontario.

Provincial fire rangers, who often work in grim, smoke-filed conditions, have long contended they are under-paid.

In the last few years, there have been reports by Ontario Public Service Employees Union members about the province struggling to attract fire rangers and keeping them long enough so that they can gain enough experience to become crew leaders.

The starting wage for an Ontario fire ranger is about $25 per hour.

Meanwhile, signs of morale problems festered this week at the Aviation Forest Fires and Emergency Services office in Sault Ste. Marie.

A management memo calling for “respect” was issued to department staff after someone posted a sign in the office’s lobby disparaging the department’s leaders.

“This is not the first instance where disrespectful communication has been sent to or directed at the AFFES leadership team,” the memo said.

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