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Burned Out: Pressures Are Taking a Toll on Wildfire Fighters

BC is scrambling to retain experienced workers in the face of mounting challenges.

Zak Vescera 3 Aug 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Riel Allain loved fighting fires, and he had no plans to stop.

In 2021, Allain was a smokejumper, a group of elite firefighters who leap from planes to form the first line of defence against wildfires. Allain joined the BC Wildfire Service out of university in 2016, thinking fighting fires sounded better than office drudgery.

The 2021 season was one of the worst on record. This was the year of the heat dome, when the town of Lytton burned to the ground. Nearly 8,700 square kilometres of forests were set ablaze by 1,600 fires, many of which crept dangerously close to communities.

But Allain entered the season with high spirits. He had been a smoke jumper since 2017, had seen his share of bad seasons and wanted to pursue firefighting as a full-time career.

That year, Allain quit his firefighting job.

He is among scores of veterans who have left B.C.’s professional wildfire team in recent years even as the province’s fire seasons get longer and more destructive as a result of climate change.

Allain and other firefighters say that has made the service more dependent on the new, young recruits it trains each year to meet the demands of worsening fire seasons.

“I just didn’t see it as a career anymore,” Allain said.

David Greer, the service’s director of strategic engagement, says it is a “critical moment” for the service. He attributed the turnover to a tight labour market and a “generational” shift as seasoned veterans retire. The service has ambitions, Greer says, of becoming a “year-round” operation with more positions for people who want to fight fires for a living.

But some firefighters say the service’s recruitment and retention challenges go deeper than that.

The service employs about 2,000 people. Of those, Greer says between 1,300 and 1,500 in a given year are wildfire fighters, including unit crews, smokejumpers and other trained specialists. In 2023, it reported 214 vacancies in that firefighter workforce, or about 16 per cent of its total staffing. The service has reported an average of about 217 vacancies each year since 2017. The highest was in 2022, when the service had to replace a staggering 321 firefighters — about a quarter of its total contingent.

Sebastian Kallos, a wildfire fighter and a chair with the BC General Employees’ Union, said the service doesn’t offer the pay, hours or benefits needed to retain talented employees. Longer seasons, he said, had worsened challenges of burnout and worker exhaustion.

He and other workers interviewed by The Tyee say they’re worried about how the fire service can meet the growing climate disaster as it sheds experienced staff.

“The tasks are not overly complicated. But it takes years to develop mastery,” Kallos said. “It just seems impossible to me that we can be a high-performing organization without retaining people. That Venn diagram doesn’t overlap.”

Times changing

Greer’s first job with the wildfire service was in the 1990s. In his first year, he said he was one of just 13 recruits selected from a pool of 1,500 applicants to complete the service’s wildfire boot camp.

The ’90s, economically, were a different time, and Greer suggested many people may just have been desperate for work. But the stiff competition also reflected the prestige of the job. Wildfire fighting has long been a popular choice for university students and adventurous young British Columbians who preferred fighting fires in the bush to your typical summer job.

“My best friends are still people from wildfire that I met while I was doing it, because I really know who they are,” Greer said. “Regardless of what they’re doing now, I know those people. I know who they are and who they are not.”

But fewer people are applying. This year, the service hired 340 new recruits from a pool of roughly 900 applicants, Greer said.

Part of that hiring was a decision to expand crew sizes from 20 members to 22 in 2022, which Greer said created 85 new jobs in the service.

But there were also 214 vacancies, a figure that has become typical for a service that once scarcely had any spots to fill. Greer said they have recorded an average of about 217 vacancies each year since 2017, or a turnover rate of about 16 per cent.

Greer pointed out that most employers are struggling to recruit and retain workers.

But he acknowledged the job was “not as competitive” as it used to be. The government has taken notice of the problem, too. The latest mandate letter for B.C. Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston, directs him to “explore options to improve training, retention and recruitment in BC Wildfire Service.”

“I think there needs to be more focus on recruitment,” Greer said. “A lot of that has to do with promoting our organization as a really good place to work.”

Fires have changed, too. This year is the most destructive fire season in British Columbian history. On July 27, the province estimated more than 15,000 square kilometres of forest had burned — an all-time record with months still left in the province’s fire season.

An aerial photo shows a huge fire, with large flames over a large area and billowing clouds of smoke.
This year’s Donnie Creek fire is the largest in BC’s recorded history. Photo from BC Wildfire Service.

The blazes have made international headlines and drawn hundreds of firefighters from across the world to help. B.C. itself has requested more than 1,000 of those workers to assist its roughly 2,000 standing staff and more than 600 private contractors, the service said.

Allain said that is making for a dangerous combination of less experienced workers and longer, harder fire seasons. Fires are not just more numerous, Allain said. They’re more complicated, as blazes get bigger and more regularly creep close to urban areas. And the fire season itself is often starting earlier and lasting longer.

“The structures in place, a lot of the guidelines and procedures, that exist, comes from firefighting in a time that this context was different,” Allain said. Those guidelines are changing, Allain said, but not fast enough.

In a given year, Kallos said as many as 20 per cent of British Columbian firefighters are first-timers. Many are university students doing the work seasonally — the way Kallos got into the business in 2009. That year, Kallos said, he was one of 1,600 applicants, of whom only about 200 were selected for boot camp.

Kallos and Allain were careful to not disparage new recruits. But they said they were worried the high rate of turnover in the service was putting workers in a dangerous, difficult position.

“To become a real utility firefighter that can handle a lot of different situations in different roles, it takes about 10 years to get there,” Kallos said. “You need to have that Rolodex of experiences to know when a fire is going to blow up or when to call for more resources.”

“If you have a huge turnover year, the burden of the decision making and the mentorship goes to the experienced people who are remaining,” Kallos continued. “It creates a vicious cycle because those people are stressed out and overworked.”

Greer said none of B.C.’s current fire incident commanders were in their first year on the job. He said the average tenure for a firefighter in B.C. is still around five to six years and that younger firefighters today gained experience quickly, in part because the seasons are so intense.

“It’s a different level. New recruits and second or third-year people would have a lot more experience than I would at that time,” Greer said, referring to his own career in the 1990s.

But Allain said there’s no substitute for experience. In 2021, during his last year on the job, he said he had a realization after he landed on the scene of an active fire. He realized that many of the workers on the fire line were young and inexperienced. He doesn’t fault the workers, he said. But he felt his employer had put all of their employees in an impossibly dangerous situation.

This year, four firefighters have been killed in action in Canada, two of them in British Columbia. Nineteen-year-old Devyn Gale was killed on the job after she was struck by a falling tree near Revelstoke. And earlier this month, a 25-year-old contracted firefighter was killed on the job while responding to the Donnie Creek wildfire north of Fort St. John.

Paul Finch, treasurer of the BCGEU, said an investigation is underway into the circumstance of Gale’s death and declined to comment further on the matter.

A matter of pay

But Finch did say he believes the union’s 1,800 members in the wildfire service are underpaid and overworked, something he believes is at the heart of the service’s struggles to keep experienced staff.

“I think most British Columbians would be shocked to learn that the majority of forest firefighters are in the lowest pay grid in the public service, and that their compensation, even for incredibly senior and experienced fire crew members is often geared on an overtime model that promotes burnout and damages retention,” Finch said.

Currently, a new firefighter in B.C. is paid less than $27 an hour. Their pay scale maxes out at around $30 an hour.

But Kallos said they typically make much more than that because of the volume of overtime they work. In some cases, overtime pay makes up the bulk of what a woodland firefighter takes home.

“The crews this year, they’ll be on fires for probably over 100 days this summer. And the hours worked equate to a full time, 9 to 5, 40-hour work week for one and a half years,” Kallos said.

When he was in the service, Allain said it was common for firefighters to work a 14-day “pull” — an intensive work period where they routinely worked 14 to 16 hours a day.

Allain said that would sometimes be followed immediately by a “regular shift” — five more days of work. After that, workers get a weekend off. It’s an exhausting model created at a time when fire seasons were shorter, more predictable and more manageable. But today, Allain said it is a recipe for burnout.

“The emotional fatigue, the mental fatigue and the physical fatigue, they just compound in a way that didn’t happen before,” Allain said.

Greer said the service has put a new focus on mental health.

“We’re expanding more days off. We’re expanding more time off. That’s why we expanded the crew complement as well, so you can actually take more than a couple of days off. If you need to leave for a while, that’s OK. That’s a cultural shift,” Greer said.

But Kallos said the relatively low base pay rate poses other challenges for his members. Overtime pay, for example, does not count towards their pension plan, which means their total earnings don’t align with how much they’re saving for retirement. Kallos said that problem is sometimes compounded by payroll issues that mean his members don’t get all their pay until months after the fire season ends.

Finding a winter job is often difficult, Kallos said, since few careers dovetail naturally with the duration of the fire season.

“Countless people we’ve lost because their spouses just can’t handle it,” Kallos said. “You’re on standby, you’re on a call, you could be having dinner with your partner or at an anniversary, and you’re expected to be on base in 30 minutes and then you’re gone for two weeks.”

Greer said the service has tried to improve working conditions as part of its pivot to become an all-year service with more permanent jobs. In an email, he said roughly 700 positions within the service are now year-round. The service’s budget has jumped from $136 million to more than $204 million since 2021 as part of that transition, which officials say are meant to make the agency a more “proactive” service.

But it faces stiff competition for staff. Kallos said many of his peers are taking jobs at fire departments in urban centres like Vancouver, where they are promised steady hours, good benefits and reliable pay. He worries woodland firefighting, in contrast, is becoming a “stepping stone” to a job at a fire hall.

And there’s further competition from a small group of private firefighting companies that British Columbia hires when its own resources are maxed out.

John Betts is the executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association, whose members include about 100 firms the provincial government sometimes hires to assist with fire suppression, mitigation or cleanup. Some are tree-planting companies whose staff can be hired to do wildfire fighting work during the slow season, Betts said. Others are companies that happen to own heavy machinery useful for fire mitigation, and a small handful are dedicated fire suppression teams whose take-home pay relies largely on just how bad the fire season is.

Betts said some of those companies have hired staff from the wildfire service, but says the reverse is also true.

“I think everybody is poaching everybody. We’re all short-handed,” Betts said. “I would say the wildfire service, on occasion, has poached workers from the contractors. It could be that some are migrating to where there’s better pay.”

The Tyee asked the BC Wildfire Service how much it had spent on contractors for fire suppression work from 2017 to 2023 by year, but the service responded it did not have that information on hand and did not know when it would be able to provide it.

Betts argues the question of how to respond to fires goes well beyond human resources. He says poor management of B.C.’s woodlands has left huge amounts of fuel ready to burn, and that simply hiring more firefighters isn’t enough to manage it.

Instead, Betts said he wants to see government step in to better fund a loose network of companies and communities that he says are well-positioned to help mitigate and prevent fires before they happen. He argues that activities like prescribed burning could prevent the buildup of fire in the landscape and ease recruitment pressures on the fire service and other companies.

“If we don’t have a similarly funded program, then at the currently trajectory we’re on we’re never going to have enough wildfire fighters,” Betts said.

“How do we build out that system so that the wildfire service people will be populated with capable, confident people supported by this broader community of contractors?” Betts said. “There is conflict because we’re shorthanded everywhere.”

Finch, though, says there’s an inherent tension between contractors and firefighters. While fire suppression contractors are never guaranteed work, Finch and Allain say they earn much more per hour than the wildfire service staff who are supervising them.

“You can be the incident commander of a fire making 31 bucks an hour, and there are people under you making three times more,” Allain said.

Allain said he wants to see B.C. take some cues from the United States.

In 2021, wildfire fighters working for the federal government faced many of the same challenges. But they successfully lobbied for a rule change that meant more of their hours counted towards retirement and vacation benefits. And they won a significant but temporary boost to their pay, equal to either $20,000 or 50 per cent of their previous compensation.

That pay benefit is set to expire this year, but some former firefighters like Allain think it is the type of aggressive spending B.C. may need to keep and grow its firefighting force in the face of the flames.  [Tyee]

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