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Wildland firefighters in Alberta
Global News

Burned Out In Alberta: The Struggle to Retain Experienced Wildfire Fighters

As Alberta faces another intense wildfire season, low wages and a shortage of experienced firefighters could spell disaster, but the government says, “all is well”

For Albertans, the 2023 wildfire season was the most destructive on record.

As much as we hope we won’t face the same level of danger this season, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) is concerned.

The organization representing our wildfire fighters says, “Signs are pointing to this year being just as bad—or worse.”

And they say there’s a particular reason for that.

In addition to the threat of another drought and warmer temperatures, they’re worried about how few experienced wildfire fighters have signed up to work this year.

It’s not rocket science why, either. 

Would you risk your life for $22 an hour? And no benefits?

Yea, we thought not.

Low Pay for Dangerous Work?

Currently, $22 is the starting wage for wildfire fighters in Alberta, and increasing it is no small task.

“Here in our province, you start off at about $22 to $23 an hour,” AUPE vice-president James Gault told Global News.

So with  “every year of experience, you move up a dollar figure… (but) when you’re doing a four-month fire season, it’ll take you three years to move up one level.”

Todd Loewen Minister of Forestry and Parks |
Todd Loewen Minister of Forestry and Parks |

You can imagine how many years it takes to work up to the top wages Alberta offers for wildfire fighters, which still seems low at about $30 an hour.

As you can guess, Alberta’s pay scale hinders hiring experienced firefighters when there are far greener pastures (and just as much demand) for workers in a province in BC.

“Seasonal firefighters are not applying to work in the Alberta program. Man-up supervisors, forest officers, and many others are leaving their jobs because they are worn down after years of department cuts, resulting in crushing workloads,” reads a media notice from AUPE.

But the Alberta government is saying the exact opposite.

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen told reporters: “It’s going really good. In fact, it’s one of the best years for recruiting that we’ve had.”

So why the disconnect?

Two Different Perspectives

There are plenty of young and ready-to-go kids to whom getting outside for the summer, living in a camp of like-minded people, getting some adrenaline, free food, and $22 an hour sounds like a great plan.

But once they know how gritty and dangerous the work is, many move on or use the experience to get better jobs elsewhere.

“You come here, you get the experience — Alberta taxpayers pay to train them — but then they go somewhere where they have benefits, they have coverage, they feel like they’re more respected and looked after by their employer,” said Gault.

The wage for rookie firefighters in BC is nearly 25 percent higher than in Alberta. If you get a firefighting job with Parks Canada, you start 33 percent higher than the province offers.

But the problems go beyond just lower pay. 

When inexperienced suporvisors are leading crews of newbies, safety becomes an issue.

Using the pseudonym “D” for fears of potential job repercussions for whistleblowing, one firefighter spoke with CBC News about the issue.

“Leaders who have had maybe one year, two years of experience are out there making the decisions…Having experienced, competent leaders really can mean life and death when we’re talking about incidents on the fire line,” he said.

Another firefighter who called himself Charlie to remain anonymous told Global News, “They like to toot their horn at the start of this season…about how they’re hiring 100 new firefighters or whatever the number is, but that’s irrelevant. Two guys with a ton of experience are far more useful than 20 guys with zero experience,”

According to Alberta Wildfire, this year’s staff is split about 50/50 between firefighters working last year and new hires.

While government officials have assured us that our province is well-prepared for this season, the AUPE launched a letter-writing campaign urging Albertans to ask for change.

“We’ve been lucky with the rain; we’ve been lucky with the cooler weather. This has given the government an opportunity to train and to give these people a little more experience,” said Gault.

“But we don’t know what the future is going to hold,” 

One thing is sure: wildfire crews need to be prepared for whatever comes our way.

Wildland firefighter | Government of Alberta
Wildland firefighter | Government of Alberta

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