B.C. legislators in the hot seat to respond to a firefighting crisis

B.C. legislators in the hot seat to respond to a firefighting crisis
Photo: BCGEU Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Member delegates of the BGGEU at the Legislature in Victoria.

Members of the British Columbia General Employees Union (BCGEU) went to the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday to meet with MLAs to lobby for transformational investments they hope will enhance public safety and make it easier for them to recruit and retain members.

The BCGEU represents roughly 1,800 firefighter professionals, including frontline wildland firefighting crews from every corner of the province. Its ranks also represent dispatch operators, administrative professionals and information officers that support their crucial work.

According to the B.C. government, BC Wildfire Service members numbered close to 2,000 in February of last year but only 267 of those were year-round and full-time positions.

When asked what the key aim of their meetings were, BCGEU treasurer Paul Finch said, “We were trying to get across a message to both the governing and opposition parties, that the wildfire system is in crisis and that crisis is rooted in a lack of compensation.”

Their main message to MLAs? Unless they can secure significant additional investment from the province and critical restructuring of the BC Wildfire Service, they will not be able to meet the demands of the coming wildfire season.

The BCGEU had five recommendations for the province:

1.  Overhaul the current compensation model for wildland firefighters to focus on guaranteed full-time pay and benefits, replacing current reliance on overtime models.

2.  Develop a coherent recruitment and retention strategy that rewards expertise and offers rewarding career paths.

3.  Accelerate the transition to a year-round fire prevention and mitigation model.

4.  Establish early retirement provisions for BCWS members enrolled in the Public Service Pension Plan.

5.  Strengthen relationships with Indigenous wildfire crews such as the First Nations Emergency Service Society.

During last year’s wildfire season, which the province registers as April 1 to March 1 of the following year, 2,216 wildfires torched nearly 3M-ha. The majority (2.46M) of the loss happened in the Prince Rupert Fire Centre area. Kamloops Fire Centre reported 387 fires and 201,265 hectares burnt.

It was the worst wildfire season on record, nearly doubling the worst previous year, which was 2018 when 1.35M hectares burned. Caused by lightning, the Donnie Creek Wildfire became the largest recorded wildfire in B.C.’s history. For a map of BC Unit Crew locations click here.

Climate change and a prolonged climate-related drought in B.C. don’t bode well for the coming wildfire season. The BCGEU is calling the current situation a serious crisis that the province needs to pay attention to before those wildfires start up again in the spring.

The real crisis, said Finch, “is rooted in a lack of proper compensation and we can no longer recruit and retain the kind of qualified firefighters we need to have better outcomes in ever-worsening fire systems.” So deep is the problem that they are often forced to take parts of the response system entirely offline just to do training.

“What we want to see is a compensation system where we’re able to retain crew leaders and commanders with a salary that provides a liveable salary to raise families and allow them to retire properly when they age,” said Finch.

The BCGEU is divided into components and each of these is divided into locals, which represent members in regional geographic areas. Victoria is represented by Local 1701.  While the CRD hasn’t faced significant threat from wildfires, last summer, 20 large fires burned out of control for a time on Vancouver Island, mainly in its northern region and many were linked to lightning strikes. The closest wildfire to the CRD burned around Cowichan Lake, however, the warm, dry weather experienced in the region last summer, also makes it vulnerable to the risk of wildfires.

Victoria vacationers were caught in the chaos of last summer’s wildfires, some having to evacuate or re-route during family holidays. Families were on high alert for relatives living in fire-affected areas. Wildfire risks touch everyone across the province.

When asked what the risk was if the province didn’t respond adequately to their recommendations, Finch answered “If we don’t have enough people with full training and experience at the start of fires, we see more destruction of property and more destruction of B.C. forests.”

By Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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