Wildfire fighters worry about safety risks as workers leave profession

Service adopts new programs to boost firefighter safety, retention

Wildfire fighters worry about safety risks as workers leave profession

Firefighters dealing with wildfires in B.C. are facing the challenge of longer, harsher fire seasons – and that means many seasoned workers are burnt out, while newer ones take their place, increasing the safety risk to everyone.

In a CBC article, B.C. wildfire fighter Dylan Bullock described his feeling that his crew was under-resourced — not enough people, pumps or helicopters. He suffered severe burns after one workplace “incident” that left him on life support for six days, before a slow recovery.

And after the 2023 fire season — British Columbia's worst — Bullock left his job. In all, eight firefighters died on the job countrywide last year, including six in B.C., says the CBC.

Another firefighter voiced his concerns about the $27-an-hour starting pay, along with the inexperience he’s seen on the job.

"If you don't have that, you erode the capability of the organization to actually put fires out and keep people safe."

Educating firefighters

One official in British Columbia’s firefighting service is hoping to put wildfire education within the formal education system, according to the CBC. Currently, David Greer, acting executive director of the B.C. Wildfire Service, is helping develop the programs that will be taught at a new wildfire training centre in Kamloops.

He hopes that, in the future, people will be able to earn a Bachelor of science in wildfire, with courses like wildfire weather, community health and advanced technology.

This is of particular focus as, currently, there is no firefighting industry standard for experience that Greer knows of, he told the CBC.

Following a particularly challenging wildfire season in 2023, the B.C. Wildfire Service adopted a number of programs in hopes of retaining firefighters in the service.

One issue that firefighters in the service have is fatigue. To remedy the problem, the service introduced mental health programs and expanded crew sizes from 20 people to 22, according to a report from CBC.

‘Moral liability’ and firefighter safety

While the B.C. government announced a $56-million upgrade to the Ministry of Forest's air fleet and $16 million for pumps and other equipment after the 2023 season, Alberta is “disastrously unprepared” for wildfire season this year, according to the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE).

Greer says he feels the weight of how to keep firefighters safe as seasons get longer and more complicated.

"I think there's a word for it," he told CBC Radio recently about the deaths. "I think it's called moral liability, where everyone felt responsible in some way."

Here’s how to keep outside employees safe during wildfire season, according to an expert.

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