Government changes working conditions to meet wildfire observers’ needs

Wildfire observers opposed mandatory days off with no pay

Controversial changes to fire lookout observation hours have been reversed by the Alberta government.

“The previous government recklessly changed the operating hours of our lookout hours,” said Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen in a statement announcing the change to working conditions.

“They didn’t understand lookout towers require unique rules.”

The union representing lookout observers criticized changes to employment standards requiring employees to take a mandatory day off. That threatened to leave lookouts unstaffed and raised the risk that fires could go undetected for crucial hours.

The government, with the support of the observers’ union, received a ministerial variance in June to go back to the previous terms of employment.

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said the observers who staff 127 lookouts operate in a unique working environment and perform an important duty.

“By putting these new provisions in place, we are ensuring flexibility is maintained in work arrangement and that our forests are protected.”

Labour and Immigration spokesperson Brittany Baltimore said the change in employment standards did not work for observers, who are posted in remote locations — including about a dozen in the West Country — and had nowhere to go on their mandatory days off.

“There were some workers who were upset by that, because they’re not getting paid for that day, despite the fact they can’t leave the site,” said Baltimore.

“Their job is to look for fires. They don’t want to take a day off. That’s why they do that job.

“There’s not a whole lot to do on your day off when you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents observers, said in June that the new labour regulations meant almost a dozen lookout posts were not staffed.

Three fires went undetected for up to a day, said the union, although the government disputes the figure.

“There were no fires that went undetected due to these towers not being manned,” said Baltimore.

Drones, other lookouts, ground and aerial patrols and industry and public reporting were used to ensure there were no gaps in fire detection, said Baltimore.

All lookouts are now staffed for this fire season.

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