Alberta is unprepared for the wildfire season as problems persist with the pay system for firefighters, along with a slow start to training, says the union representing wildland firefighters including those in the West Country.
Mike Dempsey, vice-president with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said last-minute recruiting by the province forced a lot of firefighters to go elsewhere for work.
He said employee turnover, normally around 25 per cent, was around 50 per cent this year, and experienced firefighters were lost.
“They went to other provinces. They went to provincial parks. They left the game totally because they couldn’t wait to hear from the government,” Dempsey said.
“You want to get the training done before the big fires start happening. Now they’re kind of training while the fires could happen. Government came out recently and said they’ve never been more ready for fire season. The truth is quite the opposite.”
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said those numbers were false.
“The allegation from the AUPE claiming a high seasonal crew member turnover is simply not true. There has been nearly 47 per cent less turnover this year,” according to a statement from the office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
“Alberta Wildfire hired 432 seasonal crew members this year with an 11.6 per cent turnover rate, well below the average of approximately 25 per cent.”
The West Country has a 20-member wildfire crew based at Rocky Mountain House, and another 24 firefighters based in the Shunda area. There are six fire towers in the area, down from 10 in 2019.
Dempsey said since the government adopted the 1GX pay system, firefighters have reported constant pay problems, particularly when working evening and weekend shifts.
“Some have been paid. Some have been paid late. Some have been paid incorrectly. Some are borrowing money from relatives and friends to get by.”
The AUPE said even though some workers have not been paid in over a month, they keep working.
Dempsey said cancelling the Rappel Program (RAP) last year, which included 63 specially-trained firefighters who would be deployed by helicopter to inaccessible areas, was another bad move by the UCP government looking to save money.
Those firefighters attacked fires when they were still small. Now fires have a better chance at getting bigger and costlier to fight, he said.
“Because of what the government is doing, cutting back with fire fighting protection, I would advise people to be extra cautious. Things can get out of hand quickly,” Dempsey said.
In 2019, the province said it was putting a priority on two other groups of firefighters who are used more often.
Helitack crews land as close as they can to a fire and hike into it, and Firetack crews made up of contract workers, largely from Indigenous communities.
“We still need boots on the ground and that’s why we’ve hired more than 400 firefighters with one of the best staff retention years in over a decade,” said Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen in a statement.
He said in preparation for this fire season, the province made significant investments in new cutting-edge technology from drones, high pressure fire suppression cannons, infrared scanners to fire gels. Alberta Wildfire is always adapting and improving firefighting techniques and technologies from around the world.
“Last year we had one the best fire seasons and this year has been off to a great start.”
— With files from The Canadian Press