Canada is grappling with its worst start to a wildfire season on record, but recruiting firefighters is becoming increasingly difficult due to a tight labor market and the grueling nature of the work, provincial officials say.
Limited resources could threaten Canada’s ability to fight fires, which are expected to grow larger and more intense in the future due to fossil fuel-driven climate change, potentially causing more damage to communities and disrupting the country’s oil and gas, Mining and timber industries.
Canada employs about 5,500 wildland firefighters, according to a Reuters survey of all 13 provinces and territories, excluding the remote Yukon Territory, which did not respond to a request for information.
About 2,500 firefighters are short, said Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia and a wildfire expert.
“It’s hard work, it’s hot work, it’s smoky work, and there are real issues with long-term health impacts,” Flannigan said. It’s getting more and more difficult.”
This year, Ontario extended application deadlines, ramped up marketing efforts and began covering training costs to attract more recruiters. Applications fell in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and Alberta had to go through several rounds of hiring to fill vacancies, officials said.
Canadian provinces and territories share personnel and equipment as needed, and call on international partners and the military in times of extreme need. But this year, record-breaking fires erupted simultaneously in the east and west, sparking a scramble for firefighters and aircraft.
“This is the worst-case scenario that everyone fears — multiple parts of the country burning at the same time,” said Scott Tinley, forest conservation manager for Nova Scotia.
Wildfire responders work 12 to 14 hours a day, for up to two weeks at a time, in smoky, high-pressure environments, often in remote wilderness areas.
Seasonal work, a longer fire season and uncompetitive base wages, which range from $30 an hour in British Columbia to $18 an hour in Manitoba, also keep people away.
“We’re competing with a lot of other labor markets. It’s physical labor, and it’s mental labor,” said Rob Schweitzer, executive director of BC Wildfire Service.
A week of cool weather and rain has moderated some fires across Canada, but with 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) – an area the size of Lithuania – already burned this year, the unusually hot weather is expected to return.
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This year’s record fires have led to the deployment of about 550 Canadian armed forces personnel and more than 1,700 international firefighters, paid for by the provinces, to supplement stretched firefighters. As more wildfires threaten communities, provincial agencies are increasingly relying on structure firefighters to help protect homes.
But according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, 90,000 of Canada’s 126,000 structure firefighters are volunteers, carrying out their day jobs alongside the burden of protecting their communities.
Some provinces called for additional wildfire crews during the height of the fires in May and June. Alberta deployed 157 personnel to the government’s call, Nova Scotia sent its first 30 volunteers last week and Quebec trained an additional 300 volunteers and forestry workers who are not normally involved in wildfire response.
Extra manpower doesn’t come cheap. According to federal government data, the annual cost of wildfire protection nationwide has exceeded $1 billion in six of the past 10 years, an increase of about $150 million per decade since 1970.
Most experts expect them to keep climbing.
The federal government will spend $38 million to hire, train and retain firefighters, and spend $256 million over five years on an equipment fund and a pilot program to train structure firefighters. A spokesman for the Department of Emergency Preparedness said the government recognized that more investment was needed.
“The men and women who are fighting wildland fires are doing an amazing job, but the truth is there are not enough of them,” said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.