As wildfires intensify in Canada, recruiting firefighters is becoming more and more difficult

COLOMBIA (Reuters) – Canada is battling its worst start to a wildfire season on record, provincial officials said, but recruiting firefighters is becoming increasingly difficult due to tough job markets and the challenging nature of the job.

Limited resources could threaten Canada’s ability to put out fires, which are expected to grow more ferocious in the future as a result of climate change caused by fossil fuels, potentially causing more harm to communities and disrupting the country’s oil, gas, mining and lumber industries.

A Reuters survey of all 13 provinces and territories showed Canada employs about 5,500 wildland firefighters, not including the remote Yukon Territory, which did not respond to requests for information.

That’s about 2,500 fewer firefighters than needed, said Mike Flanigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia who specializes in wildfires.

“It’s hard work, it’s hot work, it’s smokin’ work, and there are real issues with the long-term health effects,” Flanigan said. “It is getting more and more difficult to recruit and retain personnel.”

This year Ontario extended the application period, ramped up marketing efforts and began covering training costs to secure more recruits. Applications were being denied in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, officials said, and Albertans had to do several rounds of recruitment to fill the ranks.

Canadian provinces and territories share crews and equipment as needed and call on international partners and the military in times of greatest need. But this year, record fires broke out in the east and west simultaneously, stoking competition for firefighters and aircraft.

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“This was the worst-case scenario that everyone feared – multiple areas of the country burning at the same time,” said Scott Tingley, Nova Scotia’s director of forest protection.

Wildfire crews work 12 to 14 hours a day, up to two weeks at a time, in smoky, stressful environments, often in remote wilderness areas.

Seasonal work, longer fire seasons, and a non-competitive basic wage — which ranges from C$30 an hour in British Columbia to C$18 an hour in Manitoba — also discourage people.

“We’re in competition with a whole host of other labor markets. It’s physically demanding and it’s mentally taxing,” said Rob Schweitzer, executive director of the BC Wildfire Service.

A week of cold weather and rain has eased some fires across Canada, but 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres), an area the size of Lithuania, has already burned this year and the unusually hot weather is expected to return.

Fill in the gaps

This year’s record fires resulted in Canada deploying about 550 members of the armed forces and more than 1,700 international firefighters, paid by territories, to bolster its extended crews. With wildfires increasingly threatening communities, regional agencies are also increasingly relying on structural firefighters to help protect homes.

But of the 126,000 firefighters in Canada, 90,000 are volunteers, according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, who shoulder the burden of protecting their communities while also holding day jobs.

At the height of the fires in May and June, some counties pleaded for more wildfire recruitment. Alberta deployed 157 people who responded to a government appeal, Nova Scotia sent its first crew of 30 volunteers last week, and Quebec trained an additional 300 volunteers and forest workers who are not normally part of the wildfire service.

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Additional manpower is not cheap. Annual national costs of protection from wildfires have exceeded C$1 billion for six of the past 10 years, according to federal government data and have risen by about C$150 million per decade since 1970.

Most experts expect them to keep climbing.

Since 2009, Canada has spent more on fighting and extinguishing wildfires than on maintaining firefighting personnel and its program.

The federal government is spending C$38 million to recruit, train and retain firefighters and C$256 million over five years in an equipment fund, working on a pilot project to train structural firefighters. A spokesman for the Ministry of Emergency Preparedness said the government recognized the need for more investment.

“The men and women fighting wildland fires are doing a tremendous job but the reality is there are not enough of them,” said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

(This story has been corrected to fix the Manitoba wage rate at C$18 per hour, not C$0.74 per hour, in paragraph 10)

Additional reporting by David Leungren and Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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